Tyler Held
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Tyler Held

Achievements

Become an Eventing Nation Blogger

About Tyler Held

Dr. Tyler Held EdD CMPC is a professional groom and Certified Mental Performance Consultant. You may have seen her over the last few years working for International 5* Jennie Brannigan or listened to an episode of her podcast, The Whole Equestrian. Tyler started riding in summer camp at the age of 5 and essentially never looked back. She obtained her Undergraduate degrees in Animal Science and Equine Business Management from the University of Findlay in 2014. During this time, she spent her summers doing her first working student job at an eventing barn and quickly became obsessed with the sport. After experiencing some mental blocks in her own riding, she decided to focus more on grooming and learning more about Sport Psychology. In 2017 she moved to Chester County, PA to work as a Vet Tech and groom for Dr. Kevin Keane, which opened a lot of doors in the eventing community. Just as she finished her Master’s Degree in Sport and Performance Psychology, she took the reins at Brannigan Eventing as head groom. Now partially retired from grooming, Tyler is focusing on growing her consulting business, Thought Quest Mental Performance Solutions, and helping Equestrian athletes navigate the mental challenges that come with the sport.

Latest Articles Written

Between the Ears with Karen Bowersox

These days, we often view each other’s lives through the lens of a highlight reel, glimpsing the incredible trips, impressive jumps, and moments we’re proud enough to share on social media. What we don’t often discuss is the immense pressure this places on athletes on both ends of the news feed.

Riders, whether professional or not, feel compelled to post content that portrays them as cool and successful. As consumers of this content, we are left with a distorted perception that the sport is easy and that failure might suggest one isn’t cut out for it. These interviews are part of my mission to shed light on the reality of the challenges faced by everyone, regardless of their level, at some point in their journey.

In this edition of Between the Ears, we’re shaking things up a bit and delving into the story of Karen Bowersox from the Major League Eventing Podcast. The podcast spotlights individuals in the industry, aiming to bring the sport of eventing into the limelight.

Karen co-hosted the podcast with her husband, Rob, until his sudden passing in November of 2022. Since then, Karen has admirably kept Rob’s dream alive, producing the show with her son, Robby. Through love and loss, there’s always much to learn about resilience and perseverance. So, let’s journey between the ears…

To read more Between the Ears interviews, click here.

Q: Can you tell us about your journey into eventing and how Major League Eventing started?

A: My journey into eventing began with humble roots in the hunter world. From a young age, I was immersed in the equestrian scene, starting with my first pony that I got at age 7 and eventually transitioning into Arabian competitions under the guise of my parents. I wanted to do eventing so bad, but my parents thought the discipline was dangerous and wouldn’t let me try it while I was still under their roof. Life took its twists and turns -— I got married at a young age, and Rob served in the Marines, so we moved around a lot. It wasn’t until later, after settling back on the East coast, that I found my way back to horses and got to start eventing. Both of our sons started riding as well, and when our son Joe started working for Boyd Martin we saw how the sport needed better opportunities for prize money and sponsorship. My husband Rob and I saw the potential to elevate eventing to new heights, and thus, the podcast was born.

Q: Losing a partner is undoubtedly a challenge. How did you find the strength to continue the work you and Rob started together?

A: Losing Rob was incredibly difficult, both personally and professionally. He was the driving force behind Major League Eventing, and stepping into his shoes felt daunting. But amidst the grief, I discovered his goals, both personal and professional, outlined on his phone. It was a poignant reminder of his vision and the importance of carrying it forward. The support from fellow riders and fans of the show also fueled my determination. With the help of my son and our community, we found the strength to persevere. Every time we finish recording an episode I am so glad that we’re still doing it.

Q: How did the eventing community support you during this challenging time?

A: The outpouring of support from the eventing community was immense. From heartfelt messages to food arriving at the house, we felt surrounded by love and compassion. For his service, instead of sending flowers, we asked for donations to be sent to Fair Hill’s From Green to Gold program and they received so much money that they were able to create Major League Eventing jumps among other improvements to the venue in Rob’s name. The eventing community rallied around us, offering not only condolences but also practical assistance. It reaffirmed my belief in the tight-knit nature of our community and the power of solidarity in times of need.

Q: You’ve shared some of your personal fitness journey with the Major League Eventing community. Can you share more about your journey back to fitness after experiencing grief?

A: The past year saw me grappling with grief and its physical toll. I found myself in a rut, neglecting my health and well-being. I know Rob wouldn’t have wanted that for me and I didn’t like what I was doing. It was a realization that spurred me into action. With the support of friends and the guidance of a trainer and nutritionist, I embarked on a fitness journey. From gym sessions to rediscovering the joy of running, I reclaimed control over my physical and mental health. It’s been a transformative process, reminding me of the mind-body connection and the importance of self-care. I don’t even really like running, but I feel so much better after it. I needed to do it and I’m glad that I did.

Q: What lessons have you learned about resilience and overcoming adversity through this experience?

A: Through grief, I’ve learned that resilience isn’t about overcoming adversity but rather learning to live alongside it. Each day presents its challenges, but with resilience comes the capacity to navigate them. I’ve learned that one minute I’m completely fine, and another it feels like I’ve been struck by lightning. My fitness journey has fit into this as well because, on a bad day, I look around and find that my time should be spent playing with my dogs or going to the gym and it cascades into feeling better, sleeping better, and having better overall mental and physical health. Embracing the journey one day at a time has been critical.

Q: Any advice for others experiencing grief and loss, particularly within the equestrian community?

A: Grief is a deeply personal journey, but no one has to navigate it alone. Seek solace in the support of loved ones and cherish the moments of connection within the equestrian community. Take each day as it comes, allowing yourself the grace to grieve and heal in your own time. Remember, true friends and family will stand by you through it all, offering a beacon of light in the darkest of times.

Q: What goals are you currently pursuing to honor Rob’s memory and further the mission of Major League Eventing?

A: Rob had ambitious goals for Major League Eventing, including expanding the MLE Fit Club into a clothing line catering to equestrian athletes. His dream was to have a line of clothing that could seamlessly navigate from the gym to the barn, and I’m looking into different ways to make this a reality. While navigating grief, I’m committed to exploring avenues to bring his vision to fruition and honoring his memory.

As a community, we’re immensely grateful for Karen’s dedication to continuing Rob’s work and embodying the sentiment that life isn’t about what happens to you — it’s about how you respond to it.

Between the Ears: Laine Ashker

These days, we often view each other’s lives through the lens of a highlight reel, glimpsing the incredible trips, impressive jumps, and moments we’re proud enough to share on social media. What we don’t often discuss is the immense pressure this places on athletes on both ends of the news feed. Riders, whether professional or not, feel compelled to post content that portrays them as cool and successful. As consumers of this content, we are left with a distorted perception that the sport is easy and that failure might suggest one isn’t cut out for it. These interviews are part of my mission to shed light on the reality of the challenges faced by everyone, regardless of their level, at some point in their journey.

On this edition of “Between the Ears,” I caught up with Lainey Ashker, who holds the esteemed status of being an Advanced level eventer and a Grand Prix dressage rider. Lainey continues to pursue excellence in both sports and has ambitious goals for the future. Her journey has seen its share of ups and downs, but one thing became clear during our conversation: she’s never giving up. So, armed with that grit and determination, let’s delve into her story…

[Catch up on more editions of this column here]

Laine Ashker and Anthony Patch. Photo by Leslie Threlkeld.

Can you tell me a little bit about how you got started with horses?

My mom has always been into horses, so naturally, she got me into them too. I participated in my first Prelim Championship while still in my mom’s belly when she was 7 months pregnant with me. I was practically destined to be an eventer, and I caught the horse bug easily. My mom supported my dreams by finding off-the-track Thoroughbreds for me to ride and train. We even relocated from California to Virginia to further my eventing career. Of the four horses I’ve taken to the 5* level, three have been OTTBs.

How did you end up branching off into pure dressage?

I always enjoyed the dressage phase of eventing, but it wasn’t my main focus initially- how I got into pure dressage is a funny story. I had posted an ad on Craigslist offering to teach lessons, and only one person responded to that ad—Ann Wilson, who now owns horses for me. She had a passion for dressage and wanted someone to train her Andalusian she had purchased at a dude ranch through the levels. I had a great time working with him, and Ann and I’s relationship naturally evolved from there. Ann has been one of my most supportive owners, and I’m incredibly grateful for her support—and to Craigslist! Getting into dressage has also helped me expand my point of view and see different ways of doing things, which has been great for my career.

Laine Ashker and Anthony Patch. Photo by Jenni Autry.

Can you recall a time when you lost confidence in riding and how you regained it?

Confidence has never come naturally to me, unlike some people who seem to rebound effortlessly. Throughout my career, even before my accident, I struggled with confidence. In 2007, when I was on the training squad, I was the only one who expressed interest in meeting with a sports psychologist. At the time, it made me feel somewhat isolated, but I’ve always been open to anything that could give me a competitive edge, and I am glad that I sought out the support.

Naturally, my biggest blow to confidence came in 2008 with my serious accident. My mom had always taught me that when you fall or make a mistake, you get back on and fix it. However, in this instance, I couldn’t get back on for many months due to being hospitalized. Beyond the obvious physical and emotional repercussions, I also grappled with confidence issues regarding how people perceived me. I faced a lot of negative backlash and encountered many who wanted to interview me for the wrong reasons. The internet played a significant role in affecting how I felt about myself.

Regaining my confidence wasn’t an overnight process, but a good friend, Kristen Bond, gave me a book called “Mind Gym” by Gary Mack, which proved immensely helpful in developing problem-solving skills. I still draw on mantras from that book to this day. Speaking with Daniel Stewart was also pivotal in giving me the confidence to be myself and approach things differently.

When you’re young, there’s a tendency to want to get back into the saddle immediately to prove everything’s fine. Looking back, I realize I did myself a disservice by not acknowledging the emotions I experienced. It’s clear to me now that the worst thing you can do when you lose your confidence is to rush yourself. Riding at a level below your competency allows you the bandwidth to work through the challenges you’re facing.

I continue to prioritize my mental health both as an athlete and as a person. I’ve learned that certain activities, like working out, getting a massage, or going to cryotherapy, contribute to my self-care because they affect how I feel and perform in the saddle. Ultimately, confidence isn’t something you either have or don’t have—it’s complex and individualized. It requires self-awareness and constant effort. Despite the work I’ve put in, my natural reaction to making a mistake is still self-criticism, so I surround myself with people and resources that help me reframe my perspective.

Big hugs for Anthony Patch. Photo by Sally Spickard.

How do you manage burnout?

When I experience burnout, it’s usually due to either the time of the season or feeling stuck because I don’t have many horses and worry about being surpassed by other riders. Our world feels small, with everyone seemingly chasing the same goals, so the fear of being left behind looms large. For me, having a dual focus on two sports has been incredibly helpful. Last year, when I encountered problems with my eventing horse, it coincided with breakthroughs in my dressage horse’s training, making the lows of eventing easier to handle.

Do you have any performance routines for when you feel nervous?

When I’m preparing for a show and feeling nervous, I pick out a few horses or rounds to watch, then give myself some quiet time to divert my mind from obsessing over my performance. I usually play Candy Crush because I know I need to quiet my mind. While some people prefer getting hyped up before cross-country, that doesn’t work best for me. Once I have a plan, I don’t want to overthink it, so I do something completely mindless.

Laine Ashker and Lovedance. Photo by Brant Gamma Photography.

What advice would you offer to someone in the sport facing adversity?

There have been many times in my career when I’ve felt like I didn’t have enough owners, enough horses, or even enough mental strength to continue. In those moments, I picture myself at 80, watching the Olympics and explaining eventing or dressage to my friends, and I wonder, ‘What if I never tried to get there?’ I’m not sure I could live with myself if I gave up on a goal I’ve dedicated my whole life to. It’s easy to stick with what’s safe, and sometimes that’s okay, but when facing adversity, I ask myself if I’ve truly tried everything. This sport is tough, expensive, and physically demanding, but it’s also my dream, and that dream drives me through the struggles because giving up would cost me more. If someone is facing adversity, I urge them to consider that scenario and ask themselves if they’ve left no stone unturned, because, in my experience, there’s always another stone.

Between the Ears: Kate Chadderton on the Complexity of Confidence

It seems like these days we look at each other’s lives through the lens of a highlight reel. We get to see the incredible trips, the best jumps, and the moments that we’re proud enough of to put on social media. What we don’t talk about is how much pressure this adds to athletes on both ends of the news feed.

Riders, whether professional or not, are made to feel like they ‘have to’ post something that makes them look cool and successful. Then, as we consume this content, we are stuck with the disillusioned perception that the sport is easy and that if you’re not succeeding, then maybe you aren’t cut out for it. I would like to take this opportunity to go ‘between the ears’ of some of the riders that make up our Eventing Nation and work to understand some of the real challenges this industry presents.

In this edition of “Between the Ears”, I caught up with U.S.-based Australian 5* rider Kate Chadderton. Kate has produced several horses up to the Advanced/4* and 5* level and has also competed in FEI-level dressage and Grand Prix show jumping. She now finds herself in a new phase of life, where she is focusing less on her personal competition horses and more on her students and sales horses. Her business is based in Cochranville, PA and splits time during the winter in Aiken, SC. With years of experience in the equine industry both in Australia and stateside, Kate shares some important insights as we go between the ears…

To read more “Between the Ears” interviews, click here.

How did you get your start in eventing?

Embed from Getty Images

Growing up in Australia, I was pretty much born on the back of a horse. I lived on a farm in Queensland, which was pretty far out in the sticks, but where I was from every kid had a pony even if they didn’t have much money. So I kept my pony at home, and because we didn’t have a trailer I would ride to get to Pony Club.

It was probably a two-hour ride there and a two-hour ride back and my mom would follow me in the car to make sure I didn’t get hurt or lost because I was only about 6 or 7 years old. I started out camp drafting — which is basically our form of cutting and I also took a liking to show jumping. It wasn’t until 1992 when Australian rider Matt Ryan won the gold at the Barcelona Olympics that I found my love for eventing.

When I turned 18, I worked for Boyd Martin in Australia while he was starting his career in the sport as well. During that time I was very lucky to be able to ride some nice horses, all Thoroughbreds, that helped me get some miles in the sport and then I lived in Germany for a bit and focused on dressage.

In 2008, still determining what my next career move should be, I took a chance on the advice of Boyd and came to America, ending up in Maryland and now, Pennsylvania.

Can you tell me about a time when you lost your confidence?

Kate Chadderton and Collection Pass. Photo by Jenni Autry.

Confidence is a complex subject and I think it is one of the most important things that a rider needs to be successful. I was a very brave and bold kid, and for a long time, not a lot bothered me when it came to being in the saddle. Then I broke my back in a riding accident, and I started to realize that I wasn’t bulletproof.

I had a series of accidents, including breaking my leg while riding a racehorse, and I found myself needing to work on my confidence, especially on cross country. The fences started to feel really big to me, but at the time I had a horse who was a really solid show jumper.

I found that I was more comfortable in the show jumping ring, and I was able to take that horse Grand Prix, which made the heights seem much more attainable. I then would build cross-country questions and exercises in my field out of show jumps, because I felt more comfortable and understood the dynamics — and there were fewer consequences to making a mistake. I was able to practice the skills I needed without the fear of messing up, and that helped me learn what I needed to go back to the solid fences.

Outside of the saddle, I’ve always been shy by nature, and being in a sport that forces you to connect with owners and ask for financial help has also tested my confidence. I found myself creating a persona for these encounters, where I was someone who wasn’t afraid of what people thought of me, even though that was the opposite of how I felt.

How have you managed burnout throughout your career?

Kate Chadderton teaches students learn how to train their horses to make improvements. Photo by Gillian Warner.

I’ve learned to become friends with the feeling of burnout. If I’m feeling burnt out, it usually means that I am pushing myself and doing something worthwhile. Someone like me who doesn’t come from any financial backing has to compete with individuals in the sport who do have that backing, and that competition has usually manifested itself in hard work.

That being said, I think the other side of that hard work is knowing when to take the pedal off the gas, and having breaks to look forward to. I usually can take a week of downtime at some point in the summer and I take advantage of the off-season to go home to Australia or take time away from the horses.

I always look forward to the feeling of being done for the year; getting in my truck to drive home from whatever event is our last and putting my flip-flops on (regardless of what temperature it is outside) to symbolize the start of relaxation mode!

You’ve recently transitioned your focus from competition yourself to more lessons and sales, can you tell me a little bit about how you’ve adjusted to that mentally?

Kate Chadderton and VS McCuan Civil Liberty at the 2015 Blenheim Palace CCI3* Photo by Shannon Brinkman.

I feel very fortunate to say that this has been one of the biggest mental struggles of my life. There are so many people out there in challenging situations that don’t involve their life passion, but I’m still navigating it.

The transition didn’t happen in one day, and it’s not even really a decision that I made or wanted to make, but several things have come up that have forced me to restructure the way that I run my business. My business has always involved training, teaching, sales, and competition and now I am mostly focused on teaching and sales.

I’ve been chasing competitive goals for over 20 years and without it, it feels like part of my identity is missing. I’ve had to channel the passion that I do have for sales and teaching to sustain me while I figure out what this phase of life and business means for me.

What advice would you give to someone in the sport who is currently facing adversity?

Kate Chadderton and Collection Pass at Rolex. Photo by Jenni Autry.

Overall, I would say, don’t forget the horse. The horse and the horse’s emotional state are the most important things in our industry. They do this because they like us, not because they have to. And I think it’s incredibly important to respect the animal and to treat the animal with kindness. Things will get tough, but the love and passion we have for our horses can get us through anything.

When faced with adversity, there’s a hundred percent guarantee that if you push forward and just keep trying, you get to the other side. As a coach, I see a lot of my students go through tough times and I feel like part of my job is to help them through, which doesn’t end when I walk out of the arena.

There is a mental side to dealing with setbacks, and the path forward will depend on what kind of problems the person is having. For instance, if someone had a bad fall, I try to help them learn from the experience so that they feel like they have tools and not just the emotions of the experience.

Saddle Up for the Trip of a Lifetime: The Whole Equestrian Lake Girl Retreat is Coming in May

Imagine being part of an all-inclusive and exclusive wellness retreat tailored specifically for equestrian women. You will immerse yourself in luxury lake accommodations with 4-8 new best friends, indulge in 18 hours of personalized wellness and performance workshops, savor delicious and nutritious meals, engage in daily movement activities, experience deep relaxation, enjoy scenic hikes, and take home upscale swag that will be cherished forever.

If that sounds like heaven to you, you need to go on the Whole Equestrian Lake Girl Retreat.

Photo courtesy of Stephanie Everett.

Stephanie Everett M.Ed CHC is a wife, mother, and working professional on a mission to help educate and empower people to take charge of their well-being. As the owner of Total Evolution Health and Transition, Stephanie is able to help fulfill this mission through her corporate wellness program, Pillar Corporate Wellness, and by hosting transformative weekend getaways, dubbed ‘Lake Girl Retreats’.

When I first met Stephanie, we connected so easily on our values and views of health and wellness, that the idea of teaming up to host a Whole Equestrian Lake Girl Retreat was a no-brainer. As equestrians, we tend to invest all of our time, money, and energy into our horses and we don’t often take the time to invest in ourselves. Not to mention, it’s hard to work on habit changes when you are fighting against the forces and stressors of everyday life.

Lake Girl Retreats offer a chance to reset and overhaul — and not just by chewing on raw vegetables and drinking green juice for four days. These retreats are a little like going to summer camp as an adult, complete with specially tailored workshops to fit the group’s needs. You’ll embark on a journey of growth, laughter, and profound connections. Additionally, you have the luxury of having not one but TWO wellness professionals to guide you on your journey.

Check your calendar: we are set to host our first retreat together on May 16-19 in Deep Creek Lake, MD. All levels and disciplines of equestrian life are invited. If you’re interested in joining us, please reach out for more details.

To give you an idea of what the experience will be like, I caught up with Stephanie, who has hosted 10 retreats since 2019.

Photo courtesy of Stephanie Everett.

What is your favorite part about hosting retreats?

I think when I first started doing retreats, my favorite part was the praise that I would get for their successes. The little compliments, like people telling me they liked the food and didn’t expect healthy to be so tasty or giving me positive feedback about their life well after the retreat. Now that I’ve been hosting 1-2 retreats a year, my favorite part is watching the group connect organically. Many times, the women don’t know each other before attending a retreat, and I just love stepping back to watch friendships form from the experience. That is why the majority of the women prioritize attending every retreat they can after their first one, which explains why there have been so few spots available to newbies these last couple of years.

What is one thing women can expect to gain after attending one of your retreats?
Something that most women don’t take time to do is pause and think about their lives holistically. Thinking about all the things that they have done to define who they are now, with zero judgment, and considering their aspirations for who they want to become and how to get there. Each individual who comes to my retreats leaves knowing themselves better through a supportive process of reflection and renewal, in both biology and biography. They leave empowered and ready to seize opportunities to write their life story according to their dreams and goals.

Most people hear the word “wellness” and think of fitness or nutrition. What else do you cover on the retreats?

I cook healthy meals for everyone, and we do some form of daily movement- but the focus of a Lake Girl Retreat is not a strict diet and workout regime. We also have wine, eat cheese and we have a lot of fun! Our sessions work on the whole person; the group dynamics enhance this process. We talk about broad ideas like our connection to other people, our families, and what is and isn’t working in our lives. It’s a bit like getting recalibrated in a way that makes you feel confident to make lasting changes in your real life.

Photo courtesy of Adrienne Morella Photography.

What’s one piece of wellness advice you could give to any Equestrian, knowing what you do about the lifestyle?

So I just started taking riding lessons, and I’m excited to learn more about horses in the upcoming months before our retreat, but from what you’ve told me and what I’ve witnessed, the ‘easiest’ and most actionable advice I could give would be to focus on hydration and being aware of your caffeine intake.

I’m not saying to quit caffeine altogether, but be mindful of the timing. Drinking caffeine after noon can drastically affect your sleep- whether you feel it directly or not. If you track your sleep patterns, you will notice a huge difference in your sleep score for the better by simply eliminating caffeine after noon. Sleep is very important! Drinking water consistently throughout the day will help you flush out caffeine and other unwanted toxins.

Remember, if you’re not stopping a few times a day to pee or you have dark, pungent urine, you’re not drinking enough water. I have a ton of hacks around the hydration habit and so much more for sustainable energy, focus, and mental clarity.

Dr. Tyler Held EdD CMPC is a former 5* Groom who currently owns and operates her Sport Psychology Consulting Business, Thought Quest Solutions LLC. She is also the host of The Whole Equestrian Podcast and writer of the popular Between the Ears series here on EN. This retreat is an extension of The Whole Equestrian’s mission to ‘bridge the gap between riding and wellness’ and help riders support their own needs through the tough demands of life with horses.

To learn more and reserve your space, please email [email protected].

Between the Ears with Will Faudree

It seems like these days we look at each other’s lives through the lens of a highlight reel. We get to see the incredible trips, the best jumps, and the moments that we’re proud enough of to put on social media. What we don’t talk about is how much pressure this adds to athletes on both ends of the news feed.

Riders, whether professional or not, are made to feel like they ‘have to’ post something that makes them look cool and successful. Then, as we consume this content, we are stuck with the disillusioned perception that the sport is easy and that if you’re not succeeding, then maybe you aren’t cut out for it. I would like to take this opportunity to go ‘between the ears’ of some of the riders that make up our Eventing Nation and work to understand some of the real challenges this industry presents.

On this edition of Between the Ears, I caught up with 5* Rider, Will Faudree. Will found great success early on in his career with his mount, Antigua. The pair was a part of the Gold Medal winning team at the Pan American Games in 2003, the traveling reserve for the 2004 Olympic Games, and a part of the team at the 2006 World Equestrian Games. He was also the traveling reserve for the London 2012 Olympic Games on his mount, Andromaque.

In 2015, Will had a freak fall in the Advanced division at Five Points Horse Trials, where he broke his neck in two places. Will has returned to upper-level Eventing, competing in multiple international events and representing Team USA as the traveling reserve for Tokyo 2021 with Mama’s Magic Way. Through the highs, lows, and everything in between, Will has an interesting perspective on confidence, burnout, and sustaining a career in the equestrian industry. So with that, let’s go between the ears…

To read more “Between the Ears” interviews, click here.

BOOM! Will Faudree and Mama’s Magic Way nail the brief with a career best. Photo by Libby Law.

Can you tell me a little bit about how you got into eventing?

I grew up in Texas on a cattle ranch that my family owned, so horses have always been a part of my life. My earliest exposure was to Western riding, but I’ve always been a little bit of a black sheep in my family, so naturally I was more drawn to riding English. I actually saw a movie called Sylvester, where the main character turns a rogue horse bought from a livestock auction into a champion eventer, and that got me interested in the sport. That was in the early 90s, and I never looked back. In 2001, I was able to be a part of the gold medal young rider team and then went to work for Phillip Dutton for a few years before going out on my own.

What are some of the biggest accomplishments in your career?

Will Faudree and Mama’s Magic Way. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

I had a lot of competitive success early on in my career. I had represented the country and done most of the biggest and most prestigious events by the time I was 25, and obviously, competitive success is easy to track. In a way, it doesn’t feel like I’ve reached that level of success since I had Antigua, and frankly, I’m proud of the longevity of my career despite that. After the World Games in 2006, Karen Stives gave me some of the most important advice I’ve received, and that was not to expect my next horse to fill Antigua’s shoes.

That one phrase has enabled me to continue to stay passionate and engaged in the sport, regardless of the level at which I am competing. Instead of chasing the results, it allowed me to focus on the horses as individuals and develop partnerships with them. I am still striving for results at the top competition, but beyond that, I’m proud of the longevity of my horses’ careers and the obstacles I’ve been able to overcome.

I broke my neck in 2015, and getting back to the 5* level after an accident like that has been a success in and of itself. I also lost my sister in 2008, and I think it’s difficult to navigate a competitive life after losing a loved one. Instead of viewing success as a singular event or accomplishment, I’m able to take a step back, look at my journey, and be proud of it as a whole.

What are some of the tools you used to help come back to the sport after your neck injury?

I was laid up for such a long time after my neck injury and subsequent surgery that I had a lot of time to think about what it was going to feel like when I was finally able to go cross country again. I worked with sport psychology consultant Abigail Lufkin, who helped me be OK with not knowing what my return to competition was going to feel like.

I’m very goal-oriented, and I like to plan and visualize, and I found that after my injury, when I would start to visualize myself going cross country, I would fall and break my neck again. It was really hard for me to accept that it was ok to have these thoughts, and in a way, they were important in helping me get over the fear.

I learned to navigate the negativity with meditation, focus exercises, and breathing techniques. Ultimately coming to terms with the reality that another fall might happen helped me mentally prepare myself to get back on course.

Do you have any pre-performance routines for cross country?

Will Faudree and Carli 13. Photo by Shelby Allen.

I tend to be very quiet and internal when I get nervous, and I used to panic about that. I thought I should be pumped up, so I would try to listen to loud music. But I don’t like loud music, so I eventually accepted the fact that it’s ok to be quiet.

If I’m really nervous, I’ll sometimes pull up YouTube videos of Tony or Academy Award speeches, and I just listen to the gratitude that people show. The emotions of these individuals as they accept awards demonstrate the passion and hard work that goes into a big success, and that helps me get in touch with the mindset that I have for riding. It helps remind me that this sport is about my horses and the relationship that I have with them.

I also enjoy that everyone who wins an award is consistent in thanking their team, and I am reminded that I would be nowhere without the vets, farriers, grooms, owners, and sponsors that I have by my side.

Interested in dialing in to this attitude of gratitude? Here are some of Will’s favorite speeches:

Viola Davis wins Best Supporting Actress:

Kelli O’Hara Tony Acceptance Speech:

Have you ever experienced burnout? How do you navigate it?

Absolutely. And just like I think it is ok to have thoughts that things might not go well when you’re riding, it’s ok to experience burnout. We all need a break, and I think our horses need the break as much as we do. I used to be hard on myself when I was feeling that way, but I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older that it is important to make time to do things that I enjoy.

It would be very easy for me to fill up every single weekend with a clinic, and I’m sure my bank account would be very happy, but I know I wouldn’t be. So instead, I make sure I take time to go for a hike or fly up to New York to see a show.

What does the off-season usually look like for you?

Will Faudree and Andromaque at Rolex 2012. Photo by Samantha Clark.

The horses go on holiday after their last big competition of the year, and they won’t come back to work until about January 1st. I keep the young horses in work, but I try to make the atmosphere of the barn more relaxed and take time to unwind. I like having the quiet weeks at home, and this year is actually the first year in a while that I’ve taken a real vacation.

I spent a week this winter on the Queen Mary, going from New York to Southampton, England, by myself. Vacation or not, the off season is a great time to reflect and see where you can improve. If I had finished Burghley on my dressage score, I would have won- so I’ve been using that experience, both positive and negative, to make my plans and goals for next year.

What advice would you give someone in the sport who is currently facing adversity?

Whenever things get hard or stressful, I always tell myself to keep going. We have no choice but to move forward, even if that means moving forward down a different path. You have to be honest with yourself about what you’re facing and then make a plan. If it’s a soundness issue with a horse, figure out what the treatment plan is. If it’s a financial issue, brainstorm what actions you can take to overcome it.

It’s very easy to compare yourself to other people in the sport, and I’ve been guilty of that as well, but it’s important to remember that the grass is always greener on the other side, but you have to figure out how to play on the grass you’re standing on. Figure out what your situation needs, and start there.

Will Faudree and Pfun. Photo by Leslie Threlkeld.

When I was going on my trip on the Queen Mary, I had people ask me if the ship would stop anywhere. We sailed across the middle of the Atlantic, so there was nowhere to stop, and during the trip, for the first time in my life, I enjoyed the journey. That was such a good reminder for me.

This year is an Olympic year, and I would love to make the team, but I also know that that may not happen. Three people are going to the Olympics this year. I’m going to take every day one step at a time and enjoy the journey because the journey is all that is guaranteed. And the problem with focusing on the destination is, where do you go after that?

Embrace the sport for what it is, enjoy your horses, and just keep moving forward.

Between the Ears with Woodge Fulton

It seems like these days we look at each other’s lives through the lens of a highlight reel. We get to see the incredible trips, the best jumps, and the moments that we’re proud enough of to put on social media. What we don’t talk about is how much pressure this adds to athletes on both ends of the news feed.

Riders, whether professional or not, are made to feel like they ‘have to’ post something that makes them look cool and successful. Then, as we consume this content, we are stuck with the disillusioned perception that the sport is easy and that if you’re not succeeding, then maybe you aren’t cut out for it. I would like to take this opportunity to go ‘between the ears’ of some of the riders that make up our Eventing Nation and work to understand some of the real challenges this industry presents.

On this edition of Between the Ears, I caught up with 5* Rider, Woodge Fulton. Woodge runs FMF Equestrian with her partner David Ziegler out of Full Moon Farm in Finksburg, MD. Talking to Woodge, it was clear that she agreed with the core inspiration of this series: what you see on social media is not always what you get. Woodge grew up on a farm and has had the opportunity to travel the globe, attending competitions as both a groom and a rider. At just 28 years old, Woodge has already collected experiences and insights that are worth reading. So let’s get between the ears.

To read more “Between the Ears” interviews, click here.

Woodge Fulton and Captain Jack. Photo by Jenni Autry.

Can you tell me a little bit about how you got into horses and the sport of eventing?

I’m very lucky that both of my parents are in the business of horses. My mom started her career in zoology. She ran quite a few zoos around the country, and she ended up at the National Zoo. Missing the horses, my mom went to ride at a local barn, where she met my dad, who was managing the farm. They bought Full Moon Farm together the year before I was born, so I was lucky to be brought up on a farm.

My sister Grace and I did a ton of things with horses growing up, mostly English, but I also did a brief Western stint and went to the Quarter Horse Congress. Eventing started to be the clear path forward when I was lucky enough to get an older Advanced horse that no longer wanted to compete anywhere close to Advanced, and she helped show me how fun the sport can be.

My parents were open to both my sister and me doing other activities growing up, but I think growing up in that environment, we were both naturally attracted to horses. Having my parents to look up to and seeing the business that they built was and is incredibly inspiring and humbling. No one could shelter us from the realities that come with horses. On Christmas and snow days, Grace and I were in the barn, mucking stalls.

I think a lot of people dream of a life with horses, and I feel grateful that for me, those dreams were solidified, knowing the difficulties that come with the lifestyle and not looking through rose-colored glasses.

Woodge Fulton and Captain Jack. Photo by Leslie Threlkeld.

Can you tell me about a time that you lost your confidence in riding or competing?

The last time I truly lost my confidence was when I went to Burghley in 2019. I had a really scary fall close to the end of the course. Somehow, we both walked away fine, but I knew that I had come close to dying and killing my horse at the same time. He had come down on top of me, and there was a good bit of time where he was not moving and I could not feel my legs.

I was so scared, and I didn’t know what it would look like moving forward from something like that. I walked him back to the barn myself and couldn’t help thinking it was uncomfortable to have something so drastic happen without any consequences. I know that sounds strange, but when I’ve had bad falls in the past, they’ve typically come with injuries and time off to think through what happened and what could have been done better.

I’ve had time to grieve and process. In this case, I was ending my time overseas, so I went home and was immediately back out competing. I took five horses to a local show without a break. I knew I was scared and didn’t want to have another fall, but of course, when you ride scared, you don’t ride that well.

So I had these young horses, luckily all going training and below that, I gave bad rides to. I was trying double as hard and double as fast, and that wasn’t going to bring my confidence back.

Luckily, though, it was the end of the season, and I was able to reset my confidence through the natural progression of the off-season: jumping cavalleti, taking the horses out at lower levels to knock the dust off, and that kind of thing.

That being said, this is probably the first show season that I haven’t come out of the start box at the first show worried about making the mistake again. It takes time and discipline to regain confidence.

Woodge Fulton and Captain Jack. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

Can you tell me a little bit about how you experience and deal with burnout?

There are a lot of things that trigger burnout for me. My mom is like superwoman, and she always has a buzz of energy. It seems like she thrives in chaos, and I am not that type of person.

It’s taken me a long time to realize that it’s okay that I’m not that kind of person. I love a schedule, and I love when things are planned. Obviously, with horses, things don’t always go to plan, and I know that, but I find that I get stressed out and burnt out when I’m not in control. I’ve been working on being more adaptable to changes in the plan, and that’s been helping.

I also struggle in the winter when I don’t have as much daylight to get things done. It’s stressful trying to find out what you can trim out of your day to make it all happen, and ultimately, that can be draining, not to mention the lack of sunlight. After spending so much time working in a strict program, I find it hard to give myself a break. You want all the horses to get all the things, but I think part of managing burnout is realizing that on some occasions, it’s OK if a horse only gets a 20-minute hack instead of an hour-long one.

Woodge Fulton and Captain Jack. Photo by Leslie Threlkeld.

What advice would you have for someone in the sport who’s currently facing adversity?

If you’re facing adversity, I think the best thing to do is to take the time to be sad about it and process how much it upsets you and why it upsets you. I don’t think I would have said the same thing even just a few years ago, but it’s OK to feel sad.

It’s the equestrian culture to love the struggles and the hustle. If your horse breaks, you’re told to start looking for the next one. If you get injured, you’re supposed to find what you can do to stay fit enough so that you can get right back out and compete as soon as possible. I’ve done both of those things and found myself set back further because I had to deal with unprocessed and complicated emotions.

I think it is equally important to make sure that the people you have in your corner and the people who are advising you and helping you are also giving you the time and space to process.

There comes a time in a place when you need someone to give you a kick in the pants and say, “Okay, now it’s time to get over it and move on.” But that shouldn’t be the first thing that your coach, your parents, or your owner say to you; they should be there to comfort you while you feel all the negative emotions that come with adversity.

Savannah Fulton and Captain Jack. Photo by Leslie Threlkeld.

Is there anything else that you’d like to share with readers?

As a young person coming up in the sport, I wish I had been more aware that no one is perfect. You can love a musician’s music without loving them as a person, and the same thing applies to the stars of any industry. It’s really easy to idolize people without understanding the whole picture of who they are or what their life is actually like. No one is perfect, and we need to allow grace for that, but we also can’t put someone up on a pedestal and take everything they say as gospel.

As a kid, I wanted to do whatever it took to get to the top and be the best, and I still do, but it’s just as important for me to be a good person, love my horses, and make sure they feel good. I don’t think that means I’m not competitive, and I’m willing to make sacrifices, but I’m not willing to ruin my relationships or ignore my mental health. Medals and awards don’t do anything for me on a daily basis.

I think that if more people in this sport change their perspectives, it will lead to healthier careers and healthier workplaces. I know for a fact that thirteen-year-old me would read this and think, “She’s given up.” But as I’ve matured, I’ve come to realize that it’s so much harder to work on those relationships and to train your horses well while being a good person and a good boss than it is to just try to be the best at winning.

Between the Ears with Zoe Crawford

Welcome to EN’s 2023 rewind! We’ll be resharing some of our most popular stories from the year throughout the last few days of 2023. This article first appeared on EN in June.

It seems like these days we look at each other’s lives through the lens of a highlight reel. We get to see the incredible trips, the best jumps, and the moments that we’re proud enough of to put on social media. What we don’t talk about is how much pressure this adds to athletes on both ends of the news feed.

Riders, whether professional or not, are made to feel like they ‘have to’ post something that makes them look cool and successful. Then, as we consume this content, we are stuck with the disillusioned perception that the sport is easy and that if you’re not succeeding, then maybe you aren’t cut out for it. I would like to take this opportunity to go ‘between the ears’ of some of the riders that make up our Eventing Nation and work to understand some of the real challenges this industry presents.

To read more from the Between the Ears series, click here.

Zoe Crawford and K.E.C. Zara. Photo by Abby Powell.

I think everyone remembers the first time they fell in love with horses. For Zoe Crawford, it all started at her grandparents’ cabin in New England and a memorable trip… to get ice cream.

As the story goes, across from the ice cream stand was a ranch offering pony rides. Little Zoe threw a temper tantrum when she was told to get off of her pony and her parents thought, “This kid needs some riding lessons!”

Growing up in the city of Boston, Zoe had to start at a local hunter/jumper barn, where she was involved in Pony Club but didn’t have access to real eventing until after she graduated high school. After graduation, she took a gap year to be a working student for Jeannie Clark in Ocala, where she finally got her first taste of eventing.

Throughout college, Zoe learned and rode as much as she could. By the time she graduated, she had three horses and went right into building her own business. Now a CCI5* rider, Zoe has a lot to share about what she has learned in the industry and all the ups and downs along the way. Let’s go between the ears…

Can you tell me about how you built confidence throughout your college years while not being in a program full-time?

“I was able to compete at Young Riders the summer before my sophomore year of college, and in doing so, I was named to the U25 Team. This opportunity, and getting help from Leslie Law were crucial to navigating the waters of upper-level competition. A year or two later, I was awarded the Essex grant, which was another huge boost to my confidence. Here I was, juggling school, competition, and training- and getting the validation that someone else saw my hard work was awesome. That summer, I came up to ride with Phillip Dutton, and I learned a lot from him as well as other professionals in the area. At that point, my confidence was very high.”

Zoe Crawford and K.E.C Zara. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

When was your confidence at its lowest? How did you get it back?

“I think the biggest thing that really rattled my confidence was following my first year at Kentucky. [K.E.C. Zara] had been so consistent on cross country, so I just really didn’t expect to fall off. Luckily, we both walked away fine, but the experience affected both of our confidence. It was the first time that I had a fall like that. Coming off of the event, I was lucky enough to have two other horses, one going Prelim and one going Intermediate, so I got to get right back out there. I did go quite slow on cross country while I was getting back into the groove of it and trusting myself again. But I think the confidence just came back with time and practice.

“When I got to go back to Kentucky with Zara, we made it through cross country, but that show was not without its challenges either. I had to face a huge mental battle when I was held on the cross country right before the exact spot where we had fallen before. Over the loudspeaker, I could hear it was Ashlynn Muechel whose fall had caused the hold on course. Ashlynn and I are friends, and we had driven up to the show together and were sharing a tack stall, so it was really hard to not think about her on top of all the other emotions I was experiencing. Zara is quite hot at events, which proved to be a welcome distraction. I had to use all of my concentration to keep her calm during the hold. I also took the opportunity to think about my game plan and realize that if I had to take some of the longer routes, that would be OK because my goal was to get through the finish flags.”

Zara and Zoe were ultimately spun at the second jog after their successful cross country completion at Kentucky in 2022. Luckily, it was just a little bit of soreness and the pair was able to compete at the Maryland 5 Star later that fall, complete with a double clear cross country ride and a top 20 finish. While gearing up for their Kentucky redemption this fall, Zara sustained an injury and is now enjoying retirement with Zoe.

Zoe Crawford and K.E.C. Zara. Photo by Sally Spickard.

How are you dealing with Zara’s retirement?

“When I found out that Zara was injured, it was obviously bittersweet. I caught the leg right before we left for Stable View, and she wasn’t even lame on it, so on one hand, I was disappointed about the future but on another, I was so glad that I know my horse so well and trusted my gut to have her looked at. So I’m glad she’s ultimately OK, and she’s still here with me in my barn and I get to see her everyday. She’s 17 now and I’ve had her since she was six, and with all she’s given me, I just don’t think it’s fair to try to make her come back to compete at that level again, even though her prognosis looks great.

“Now that she’s retired, it’s almost like I’m starting over again. I currently don’t have any other horses competing at the upper levels, which is something I have to wrap my head around. Zara took me around Advanced for six years and now I don’t even have something going FEI. So now I’m just focusing on the lessons that I learned from her and how I can produce the horses that I do have now.”

Zoe Crawford and K.E.C. Zara. Photo by Abby Powell.

Have you ever experienced burnout? How do you overcome it?

“I’ve been burnt out a few times on different levels. Sometimes it’s been when I feel like the horses haven’t been going as well as they should be, and sometimes it’s when I feel like I’m working away and not a whole lot is changing. The last time I was really feeling it, I had a conversation with my Dad and he asked me if I wanted to do something else, and that kind of snapped me right out of it. Even when the day to day stuff gets hard, it’s still what I want to be doing. I can’t see myself working a desk job and I know that there are going to be struggles everywhere you go. Zara helped put things in perspective for me, because the challenges that I’ve faced with her have given me confidence to handle other setbacks.”

Zoe Crawford and K.E.C. Zara. Photo by Shelby Allen.

What advice would you give for someone in the sport that’s currently facing adversity?

“Sometimes you have to be one of your own biggest cheerleader, which can be really hard, but you have to be able to believe in yourself. I also feel like you have to have a few people that you can call and vent to, just so that whatever you’re going through, you can get it off your chest. The reality of the horse industry is that you might not be able to change the situation that you are in, so you have to have those people that are going to help you process your feelings.”

Zoe is working on rebuilding and refocusing her goals for this year, growing her business and building her team. One of the most unique things about our sport is that it’s so dependant on our horses, and sometimes they have their own needs and plans.

If you make the Olympic team for basketball, you don’t have to restart at the pee-wee game just because your basketball deflated, but when you’re an equestrian, you are going to have to constantly rebuild horses and partnerships from ground zero as part of the process. This is where separating yourself from results is an important part of mental health, from Beginner Novice to Advanced, and everything in between.

Dr. Tyler Held EdD CMPC is a professional groom and Certified Mental Performance Consultant. You may have seen her over the last few years working for International 5* Jennie Brannigan or listened to an episode of her podcast, The Whole Equestrian.

Tyler started riding in summer camp at the age of 5 and essentially never looked back. She obtained her Undergraduate degrees in Animal Science and Equine Business Management from the University of Findlay in 2014. During this time, she spent her summers doing her first working student job at an eventing barn and quickly became obsessed with the sport. After experiencing some mental blocks in her own riding, she decided to focus more on grooming and learning more about Sport Psychology. In 2017 she moved to Chester County, PA to work as a Vet Tech and groom for Dr. Kevin Keane, which opened a lot of doors in the eventing community.

Just as she finished her Master’s Degree in Sport and Performance Psychology, she took the reins at Brannigan Eventing as head groom. Now partially retired from grooming, Tyler is focusing on growing her consulting business, Thought Quest Mental Performance Solutions, and helping Equestrian athletes navigate the mental challenges that come with the sport.

Between the Ears with Erin Kanara

It seems like these days we look at each other’s lives through the lens of a highlight reel. We get to see the incredible trips, the best jumps, and the moments that we’re proud enough of to put on social media. What we don’t talk about is how much pressure this adds to athletes on both ends of the news feed.

Riders, whether professional or not, are made to feel like they ‘have to’ post something that makes them look cool and successful. Then, as we consume this content, we are stuck with the disillusioned perception that the sport is easy and that if you’re not succeeding, then maybe you aren’t cut out for it. I would like to take this opportunity to go ‘between the ears’ of some of the riders that make up our Eventing Nation and work to understand some of the real challenges this industry presents.

On this edition of Between the Ears, I caught up with Erin Kanara (you may have formerly known her as Erin Sylvester). Erin has ridden at the Advanced and 5* levels on several different mounts and currently runs her training business, ES Eventing, out of Cochranville, PA. Erin had a beautiful baby girl almost two years ago and is already getting back after upper-level competition. I got a chance to talk to Erin about her journey, how she is navigating motherhood, and her insights on how to mentally approach the sport of eventing.

To read more “Between the Ears” interviews, click here.

Erin Kanara and Campground. Photo by Shannon Brinkman.

Can you tell me a little about how you started your journey in Eventing?

I grew up in Massachusetts, in a town called Hingham, south of Boston. By chance, I took my first few riding lessons from Elizabeth Iorio. Elizabeth is part of the family that owns Apple Knoll Farm, where they hold recognized events in Area I. After learning a lot of my fundamentals from Elizabeth, I started taking lessons from Adrienne Iorio. Elizabeth and Adrienne are the ones who got me into Pony Club and eventing. I probably seemed a bit like a hooligan because I was pretty untrained, had my ponies at home, and just kind of found my way while taking lessons here and there.

When I got to college, I moved to Area II to go to the University of Delaware and to ride at True Prospect Farm. Riding with Phillip Dutton and then later with Boyd Martin, I started to ride and train more consistently than I ever did growing up. I have since stayed in the area and now run my own business, ES Eventing, in Cochranville, PA.

Has there ever been a time that you’ve lost your confidence in riding and competing?

I had a baby girl almost two years ago. I rode through a good portion of the pregnancy, but I stopped jumping about halfway through and just stuck to riding horses that I trusted and knew were safe. When I got back into riding after I had my baby, I started to lose some of my confidence, mostly jumping big jumps. My strength wasn’t where it was before I gave birth, and I didn’t realize it until I started to feel like myself again.

I honestly feel like it’s taken almost a year and a half to get back to my reaction time riding, which you don’t quite know is gone when you’ve lost it. I kept thinking, ‘What’s happening with my body right now’ and couldn’t seem to get my feel back until I started practicing more. Every cross-country course I went around began to feel a little better—a little better, a little better. Looking back, it makes sense because I ended up going almost a year without jumping big jumps, but as a lifelong equestrian, I was surprised at how I was affected by the time off.

As a new Mom, have you found yourself contemplating the safety of our sport any more than you used to?

Erin Kanara and Paddy The Caddy. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

I’ve always been someone who tries to practice safe training and safe competition, one hundred percent of the time. I think, if anything, my understanding and recognition of that have become more clear. When you’re leaving the start box to go around a five-star, you think for that split second of everyone you love, and that’s when I think about my baby girl. After a moment of appreciation, I switch to being on task because staying focused is part of what keeps me safe.

I have also always been a big believer in having the proper safety gear. I had a rotational fall forever ago on a training-level horse while I was wearing a helmet with a brim. The brim came down and broke my nose, and I had a laceration between my eyes, so now I always go cross country, even schooling, in a Charles Owen Skull Cap. I also never jump a cross-country jump without a body protector, and my body protector of choice is the USG Flexi Motion Body Protector! Having the right equipment, staying on task, and focusing on how I can ride safely helps mitigate most of the thoughts about danger.

How do you prevent burnout?

I think we all go through times when we feel like we can’t quite get ahead of the curve of burnout. I run a training operation on top of my competition horses, and I have my family too. The inherent diversity in my jobs and roles helps me to keep a little bit of balance. When something isn’t working out, I usually have other things to focus my energy and time on. Sometimes I think people get burned out because they do so much of the same thing. Of course, I have a lot on my plate, but it opens my life up to stay interesting, and I don’t often feel burnt out.

What do you think is one of the biggest obstacles that you’ve had to overcome in the sport on the way to your biggest accomplishment?

On a general level, I would say riding cross-country comes naturally to me, while my polish with dressage and show jumping is not as natural. I’ve ridden a lot of thoroughbreds, and it’s much different than riding a European-bred horse. So I’m always working on my skills in those two phases. I’d like to think that my greatest accomplishments are still yet to come. I have a few young horses that I’m excited about- so the challenge is to get to that point with them. I’m not big on rushing horses toward outcome goals. I want them to be super strong and confident at a level before I move them up. So I am staying patient with the group I have now and looking forward to the future.

What advice would you give to someone in the sport who’s currently facing adversity, be it a lame horse, an injury, or some form of setback?

I feel like I run into this a lot with the young riders that I help. When you are faced with a setback, you just have to kind of take a deep breath and take a beat. See what you can do with this time. Maybe focus on some younger horses. If you just have one horse, maybe you can take that moment and work for someone different or go to a different location and kind of make the most of what you have.

Erin Kanara and Campground. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Sometimes, what feels like a setback could just turn into a silver lining for you and you don’t even know it. Disappointments are frequent in the sport of eventing, and being able to navigate disappointment is what makes the people who are great riders great. Things that people might consider ‘bad’ actually build resilience and the ability to be adaptable.

When I was just out of college, I had a sweet little Thoroughbred that I did my first advanced on. He was an angel, and I was super proud that we did it, but he had no business going advanced. At the time, I had another young horse, Potter, who was struck by lightning in the field and passed away. Within a couple of weeks, my other horse who was just getting up to preliminary, had a major injury that was going to set him back at least a year and potentially end his career completely.

I was devastated. I went from having a couple of exciting horses to suddenly feeling like I needed to start from scratch. During that time, I had a friend call me who had a horse that she had foxhunted a bit, and his owner wanted to sell him. She said he was kind of crazy but she thought there might be something to him. That horse ended up being No Boundaries, or Bucky, as we called him in the barn, who was owned by Jill Tallman and was my first five-star campaigner. Bucky had a very crazy streak in him, which was probably why he was sometimes so wild on the flat, but he was a cross-country machine.

I was beyond lucky to experience and achieve all that I did with him! To date, he’s been the best five-star horse that I have had, and he came up by chance when I was sitting there thinking, what the heck am I going to do? It’s so important in those moments to take a deep breath, keep your eyes open, keep connections coming, and something might just come along that turns things around for you.

When faced with adversity or disruption in your grand plan, I think it’s also important to remember that your mission is not only yours and that your support team, family and friends, owners, and staff are all behind you and share your triumphs and disappointments. I am so lucky to have an amazing core group of family, friends, owners, sponsors, and staff, and knowing that they are a part of the journey and supportive in the face of adversity helps me see the silver lining and find a path forward to strive for better riding and greater results!

Between the Ears with Laura Crump Anderson

It seems like these days we look at each other’s lives through the lens of a highlight reel. We get to see the incredible trips, the best jumps, and the moments that we’re proud enough of to put on social media. What we don’t talk about is how much pressure this adds to athletes on both ends of the news feed.

Riders, whether professional or not, are made to feel like they ‘have to’ post something that makes them look cool and successful. Then, as we consume this content, we’re stuck with the disillusioned perception that the sport is easy and that if you’re not succeeding, then maybe you aren’t cut out for it. I would like to take this opportunity to go ‘between the ears’ of some of the riders that make up our Eventing Nation and work to understand some of the real challenges this industry presents.

On this edition of “Between the Ears”, I caught up with Laura Crump Anderson of Hidden Heights Fitness (who also writes fitness columns here on EN — check them out here). Laura is a lifelong equestrian who is the author of Ultimate Exercise Routines for Riders: Fitness that Fits a Horse Crazy Life. You may recognize her name from the various blog posts that she has crafted on this very site. If you’ve been keeping up with the series, this edition is going to be a bit different, as Laura and I focused on the intersection between physical and mental health and the journey of managing both.

To read more “Between the Ears” interviews, click here.

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your career?

Having an equestrian for a mom, the joke is that I started riding when I was negative nine months old. Growing up, I did hunter jumpers and a lot of trail riding and I found the sport of eventing through pony club when I was 12. By age 14, I was so much of a ‘barn rat’ that I ended up with a severe overuse injury to my back and my orthopedic surgeon told me I had the spine of a ninety-year-old.

I had to stop riding for six months but was able to find my way back in the saddle through physical therapy. That experience helped shape my life as a fitness professional and I have since made it my mission to help riders realize how important it is to treat ourselves like the athletes we expect our horses to be.

So the physical health journey started because of your injury — can you tell me about your mental health journey as well?

This is a bit of a long and convoluted story, but when I was in college, I was locked in an elevator for about 12 hours. I had forgotten my student ID to open the doors and the emergency button was disconnected. I had gone in around 8 p.m. and wasn’t let out until a janitor let me out in the morning. I was trapped, and I didn’t know when I was going to be let out. That feeling of being trapped has continued to be a mental trigger for me, even today.

Horses have always been my way out of that. Always brought me joy and quieted my mind. But the year I got trapped in the elevator, I hadn’t been able to bring my horses to school with me, and one of the biggest things that made me feel really good and really in control was exercise. I then had a two-fold perspective of fitness. I already knew I needed to cross-train to keep my body strong enough to enjoy my time in the saddle and I was beginning to learn the effect that physical activity could also have on my mind as well.

When I got back to a place where I could have my horses with me again, I realized what a hugely positive influence they could have on my mental health. Not just from the connection and getting to do what I love perspective, but also from a stabilization perspective. I did all their care, so I had a responsibility to them that was outside myself, an obligation to keep moving forward.

More recently, I’ve been struggling with some pretty intense panic attacks, usually when I’m feeling trapped or feeling like I have too much on my plate. Finances play a huge role as well. I love my horses, and when I feel like I don’t have enough money to afford them or afford the things that they need, I start to spiral.

The pandemic amplified things for me because of how unstable the face-to-face health industry was, and there were a lot of transitions going on in my life. I constantly feel stuck in this paradox where horses are a positive influence to my mental health and yet a potential trigger for panic. I don’t compete even though I want to, because I find it hard to justify the expense. I remember when I was 14 or 15 and saved up money for an entry fee just to lose the money when the event got rained out. I don’t fault organizers for not being able to provide refunds, but that uncertainty isn’t something that I’m ready to cope with.

My mental health journey has included horses and fitness, but it has also included many mental health professionals helping me find the right coping mechanisms to manage the panic that I feel. I am grateful to my horses for grounding me throughout the process and providing motivation on even the toughest days.

Photo courtesy of Laura Crump Anderson.

As an amateur equestrian and fitness professional, do you ever experience burnout?

One of the biggest times I experienced burnout was in 2019. I was working for a fitness company and it was doing very well. I had just acquired a mobile gym, so the specialized equipment that we used for strength training was able to go to the barns and work with riders. I was working easily seventy to eighty hours a week. I barely saw my husband. I had a realisation that the lifestyle was unsustainable, and I had to remove myself from that business. It was a very hard decision to make. It was the hardest decision I’ve made professionally in a long time, but I was at a point where I had to do a hard reset.

I had to step away from something that was successful in order to create something that was sustainable, which ended up working out in my favor because then the pandemic hit and I was able to have a job in health care for a bit while the personal fitness industry was unstable. Now, I’ve made my way back to my new business and I know I needed things to fall apart to get to where I am, and I realize that working hard is important, but not at the cost of being burnt out.

What advice would you give to someone in the industry that’s facing adversity?

Don’t quit, but try slowing down. Find what brings you joy. Focus on the aspects of your job or sport that make it worth it. Don’t chase the wrong things, because that’s how you end up building a life that isn’t desirable anymore. Whether you’re an equestrian professional or you’re just riding as a hobby, you ultimately need to be doing it for the right reasons, so don’t lose sight of that.

Photo courtesy of Laura Crump Anderson.

What do you what do you do on a day when you don’t feel motivated to work out?

If it’s a day where I don’t want to even get out of bed, and I’m supposed to do a workout, I make sure I at least go for a walk. I get out, I put my sneakers on, and I go walk. I commit to at least walking a short loop, and usually that will get me in the zone to walk a bit longer. The thing is, if I feel like I have to do strength on that day, I’m never going to do it. But I can always start small, and small pieces of consistency are better than nothing at all. Walking gets my body moving and gets me out of my head. I’ll either listen to some pump-up music or go with my husband and I’ll get to have a conversation with him and it becomes a connection process as well.

Mental Health is a complex subject. If you or someone you know is struggling with a mental health concern, please know that there is help available. Horses ARE a great way to relieve stress, but they are not a substitute for professional guidance. Call or text 988 for crisis support.

Between the Ears with Endurance Rider Dr. Pamela Reband

It seems like these days we look at each other’s lives through the lens of a highlight reel. We get to see the incredible trips, the best jumps, and the moments that we’re proud enough of to put on social media. What we don’t talk about is how much pressure this adds to athletes on both ends of the news feed.

Riders, whether professional or not, are made to feel like they ‘have to’ post something that makes them look cool and successful. Then, as we consume this content, we are stuck with the disillusioned perception that the sport is easy and that if you’re not succeeding, then maybe you aren’t cut out for it. I would like to take this opportunity to go ‘between the ears’ of some of the riders that make up our Eventing Nation and work to understand some of the real challenges this industry presents.

To read more from the Between the Ears series, click here.

Pam on Skeeter, the mare she had her accident on. Photo by Susan Kordish.

If you’ve stumbled upon this article, there is a pretty good chance that you love horses, which also means that there’s a pretty good chance that through your love of horses, you have also confronted injury, fear, and anxiety. The reality of a life with horses is that there are inherent risks — whether you plan to go Advanced or are simply interested in trail riding with your friends.

If you’ve been following along with my Between the Ears series, you’ve heard stories from upper level eventers, and many of those stories included setbacks related to physical injury and how these riders were able to sort through related fears and get back to Eventing.

On this edition of Between the Ears, I got to talk to Dr. Pamela Reband, who many of you eventers reading this have probably have never heard of! Pam is a retired anesthesiologist who has been riding since the 1960s. She is an endurance rider who embraces the AERC (American Endurance Ride Conference) motto “To finish is to win.”

So why am I interviewing an adult amateur endurance rider for this blog? Well, after 60 years in the saddle, Pam suffered from some pretty significant fears that might have kept her out of the saddle for good and instead of giving into the fear, Pam is gearing up to take on one of the most challenging endurance rides in the country, The Tevis Cup, next year.

Working in the industry as a Mental Performance Consultant, I have found that fear in horses transcends performance in a traditional concept. For many people, fear is getting in the way of simply having fun and enjoying horses in any capacity. So I wanted to bring you Pam’s story, as hers is the story of an everyday equestrian- which let’s face it- most of us are! Pam also tells her story in her self-published book Three Steps Up to Mediocrity.

Can you tell me a little bit about your background in horses?

I’ve done just about everything you can do with a horse; breeding, showing, driving, training, jumping, and managing a farm, but it was never my full-time job. I had a career as a doctor, and I have a husband and two daughters. I didn’t discover Endurance riding until I was in my 50s, but it has been a passion for me ever since.

You didn’t start experiencing fear in the saddle until later in life, can you talk to me about the circumstances that led to that fear?

My story started with a two-year hiatus from riding when my husband was sick. Those two years really took a toll on me physically and mentally. When I was finally able to find time to get back in the saddle, I had pains and aches that I had never had before and just didn’t feel as comfortable or balanced in the saddle as I once was. I started to avoid some of the harder training trails that I had once been comfortable on but got to a point where even the easier trails made me feel uneasy.

Eventually, I was just riding in my front lawn, and on one of these rides, my mare Skeeter tripped. Because I was so off-balanced and not riding well, I tipped forward onto her neck and because I was afraid, I grabbed onto her neck, causing me to fall on the concrete-like Arizona dirt and pulling poor Skeeter down right on top of me.

That was my “straw that broke the camel’s back” moment. I sustained a rotator cuff injury, bruised the bones down my side, and had a lot of soft tissue damage, but nothing that required hospitalization or casting. Following the fall, I realized that the most significant injury I sustained was to my mind.

Two weeks following the fall, I decided to get on my grandkids’ horse, Charlie. During the ride, Charlie tripped, very small and very slightly — I started shaking and sobbing and immediately got off. For a while after that, I would pull Charlie out of the barn with every intention of riding, but when I thought about pulling myself into the saddle, I was so afraid I actually started to vomit.

Without ever really confronting the fear or the situation, I decided that Skeeter was not a good fit for my new instability and so I sold her and set out to buy a new endurance horse. Meanwhile, my husband and I also went through the process of selling our ranch in Arizona to move closer to our children. While I was still too afraid to get on Charlie, and while my life was in complete flux, I found a 14.3-hand, 6-year-old, 900 lb ‘ball of energy’, Shiloh, who also would become a very large part of my story.

Pam on Shiloh. Photo by Maria Phillips

How did you work through your fears?

By the time I was settling into my new farm in Tennessee, it had been almost three years since I had ridden with any kind of consistency. I was working towards getting back on Charlie but would find myself making excuses not to ride the second I got to the top of the mounting block. I got VERY lucky as it turned out a friend of a friend of mine connected in the horse world lived right in my neighborhood. She started to come out and ‘help me’ ride Charlie, offering moral support and a safety blanket — and at the same time suggested that I reach out to a local trainer, Scot MacGregor to help me train Shiloh.

To say that Scot changed my life is an understatement. He began training Shiloh into the horse I needed him to be and, after I gathered the courage to explain that my fear was actually the biggest problem, he started to train me as well. Scot worked at my pace to give me the confidence and courage to get back to fully riding.

At first, when Scot was riding Shiloh, I enjoyed watching and was fascinated both by the horse and Scot’s training methods, but eventually, I began evading the sessions for fear that Scot would want me to get on. In true Scot fashion, there was no pressure or timeline attached, after about a month of training, he simply told me “Shiloh is ready when you are.”

I had been slowly gaining my confidence back on Charlie during this time as well. I would even ride Charlie while Scot rode Shiloh, watching how genuinely good my little horse was becoming. Scot kept pulling me in the direction of feeling safe and confident until one day, I decided I was ready to get on Shiloh. I needed help, instruction, and support, I even needed to be reminded to breathe, but Scot was there every step of the way and despite my uncertainty, the ride was a success.

So I guess that’s how I worked through my fears, slowly, not all at once. After that initial ride on Shiloh, there were still many “firsts” to conquer: the first ride outside of the arena, the first ride alone, the first ride on trails we had to travel to, and even the first official endurance ride. I was able to accomplish all these firsts, but I never approached the next step until I felt entirely comfortable and safe and I always had Scot leading me in the right direction.

Pam and Scot ride together. Photo by Becky Pearman

Why did you decide to write your book?

What happened to me happens to an amazing number of people. It has shocked me since the book has come out how many people have reached out and shared similar experiences. I like to think that my voice is battling the “perfect” vision of what people think it looks like to come back from a fall or a setback. My journey was imperfect, but here I am today getting to enjoy my love of horses. I had been journaling and blogging about my experiences anyway, so I figured I would compile them into a book to help others along the path.

What advice would you give to someone currently battling fears in the saddle?

If you’ve got a fear or PTSD from an incident in the saddle, decide if it’s worth the work to get over it. It isn’t always worth the pain, trouble, and angst to get back to riding.

Once you’ve made up your mind that it is, know that it’s a long journey but it’s worth it. You’ve already decided it’s worth it and once you make that decision, you’ve decided the outcome. The only question is “How long will it take?” and it will take what it takes. For me, and I had a lot of help, it has taken about four years and I still have flashbacks and frightened moments. I’ve had a lot of messages from people who have read the book, some of whom are discouraged by how long it is taking and some of whom are jumping to the big steps instead of the small ones. Even babies crawl before they walk, you have to be patient in taking small steps.

In the words of Ted Lasso, “Taking on a challenge is a lot like riding a horse, isn’t it? If you’re comfortable while you’re doing it, you’re probably doing it wrong.” Now I’m not saying that the goal isn’t to be comfortable in the saddle, but I think people have a really warped view of what it takes to overcome fears in riding.

The old-school advice we get is to simply ‘get over it’ or ‘fake it until you make it’ and when you have a fear response, especially after a fall or accident, that advice just simply isn’t going to cut it. You have to take the small steps and surround yourself with the people who will help encourage you on that path, regardless of how long it takes.

Between the Ears with Courtney Cooper

It seems like these days we look at each other’s lives through the lens of a highlight reel. We get to see the incredible trips, the best jumps, and the moments that we’re proud enough of to put on social media. What we don’t talk about is how much pressure this adds to athletes on both ends of the news feed.

Riders, whether professional or not, are made to feel like they ‘have to’ post something that makes them look cool and successful. Then, as we consume this content, we are stuck with the disillusioned perception that the sport is easy and that if you’re not succeeding, then maybe you aren’t cut out for it. I would like to take this opportunity to go ‘between the ears’ of some of the riders that make up our Eventing Nation and work to understand some of the real challenges this industry presents.

To read more from the Between the Ears series, click here.

Courtney Cooper and Who’s A Star. Photo by Leslie Threlkeld.

On this edition of Between the Ears, I spoke with Courtney Cooper, owner of C Square Farm and the USA partner of Excel Star Sporthorses. A 5* rider in her own right, Courtney has also made a life and business of selling horses, which I think we can all agree is no easy feat. If you are shopping for a new partner, there is a pretty good chance someone has told you to “see what Courtney has”, given that she can have up to 20 quality horses for sale in her barn at any time.

I had the chance to talk to Courtney about how she manages to balance sales with her career and some of the hurdles that she has faced in this side of the industry.

Can you tell me about how you started your career in eventing and how you decided to make sales the focus of your business?

I started riding when I was 12 at NCMT, New Canaan Mounted Troop, in New Canaan, CT, which was based on the tenets of the Calvary system; similar to Pony Club. The focus at NCMT was Eventing, so that’s how I got into the sport.

When I got to college, I wanted to keep riding but my parents said ‘no’ unless I paid for it and maintained a ‘B+’ average in school, so that’s what I did; I attended Rice University in Houston and started a career in sales to pay for horses. I sold Cutco knives throughout college and was very successful at it, and when I graduated I started selling insurance for Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance.

Horses continued to be a part of my life at the amateur level, and I was riding with Bruce Davidson Sr., living in Georgia, and Bruce told me if I wanted to do horses full time, I needed to move to Unionville or Middleburg. I didn’t know anyone in Middleburg, so that’s how I ended up where I am now.

In the beginning, I was sort of just buying and selling horses myself, and my business grew naturally from there. I imported horses from Ireland, did consignment sales, and even started breeding. In 2016, I was able to take my very first homebred, Who’s A Star (Tag), to complete the Kentucky 5*. The next year, I took Tag back to Kentucky, and we weren’t as successful. Sitting around after cross country, I started to think a bit more about how to make this sport work.

I’ve never really been in a position to have owners and sponsors who are paying the bills on a competition horse. So I went back to Ireland, where I’ve always felt comfortable, to try to figure out something sustainable. 18 months later, Excel Star Sport Horses was created with my overseas partners. Now we import about 40 to 50 Irish horses a year to sell and compete, and I can have a few horses to compete myself as well.

Courtney Cooper and Who’s A Star. Photo by Leslie Threlkeld.

How has your business model affected your confidence in your riding throughout the years?

When I first started my consignment business, I would pretty much take anything as long as it wasn’t dangerous or lame, because I truly believe that every horse has a place. That being said, taking in horses where you feel like you are just fixing problems is tough. You can use the same methods of training you’ve been successful with for many other horses, and sometimes it just doesn’t work because of the baggage that the horse carries with it.

Now that my business is focused more on young Irish horses than consignments, I struggle with the lack of consistency that is inherent with a young horse. Some days, things click into place, and it feels amazing. Then the next day, on the same horse, it feels like the wheels are falling off the bus, and you don’t know what you’re doing.

I am lucky to have good partners that I work with overseas, and if they have a horse that isn’t suited to my market, they won’t put the horse on a plane to come over; unfortunately horses are horses so we occasionally, run into problems. Sometimes horses don’t ship well, and as a result, they regress in their training before you can make any progress. So some horses take longer to produce than others.

I’ve also had my fair share of injuries, but for me, the biggest knock to my confidence is when my training methods ‘should’ be working, but the results just aren’t showing in our performance.

I feel like a lot of people stray away from sales because they find it difficult to sell a horse after developing a relationship with the animal. Do you ever deal with these feelings?

The hardest horses for me to sell are my personal horses. For instance, right now, I have a very competitive eight-year-old, Excel Star Tick Tock. She’s a winner through the preliminary level and will likely continue to move up, and we adore her. She’s been in my program since she was a four-year-old. And, so, when someone comes and tries a horse like her, I take things a little more personally because I have done all the work to get her where she is today, and she is a member of the family.

There have certainly been times when I wish I had someone like me that I could send my horse on to and have them sell the horse for me, because it’s hard, when there are emotions involved. That being said, most of the horses that I have in, specifically to sell, I don’t have for very long, so I don’t struggle so much with finding them homes on an emotional level. I do, however, keep up with the horses I sell, regardless of how short a time they are in my barn. I created a private Facebook page for my clients to keep up with me and each other, to celebrate successes on the horses, share their journey, and also get support for any roadblocks that they may face in horse ownership.

Courtney Cooper and Excel Star First Class. Photo by Shelby Allen.

What do you think is the hardest challenge that you face in the industry?

I think the hard thing is that a lot of people choose to not use a dealer or someone who sells a lot of horses because of the risk of being scammed. I always thought that the fact that I sell a lot of horses was a benefit to use someone like me. I have an incentive to want to sell quality horses and to be honorable in the sale.

When someone only has one horse to sell, their reputation isn’t riding on the sale of that horse. Whereas for me, my reputation is made with every horse that I sell. I am not saying there are not people who don’t take advantage of the fact that they sell a lot of horses either, and people need to do their homework.

From the early days of my consignment business, when I was taking a lot of horses that had previous bad experiences, I always made sure I was very upfront with people regarding the horses’ strengths and limitations. Honesty is always my priority. I now bring over a lot of Irish horses, and not every one of them is an upper-level prospect. A lot of them are just kind, good-quality animals that are going to bring someone a lot of joy and happiness.

I like to be open and always give vet records, and some professionals have told me they will never do business with me because of that. I want to be fair and transparent and make sure the animal goes to a place where he or she will be successful if they have limitations.

Buying and selling horses is a difficult and emotional process. I don’t think it’s my job to sugarcoat everything and make people believe that the horse they “love” when they try it is their “heart” horse. Unfortunately there are others in the industry that do that, in order to make a sale, and that’s when inappropriate partnerships may be made.

Personally, if I sell a horse that doesn’t work out, I will do my best to make the situation right and find a more appropriate match. It’s challenging to navigate an industry where everyone has a different opinion of the “right” way to do things.

Courtney Cooper and Rock Star. Photo by Amy Dragoo.

Have you ever experienced burnout and how did you work to overcome it?

I had a really hard year last year for a lot of different reasons, and I did get really burned out. Honestly, I’m just now crawling out of my little dark hole. The first horse that I was hoping to take overseas had to be euthanized, which was incredibly difficult. I also had a close family friend who had always been supportive of my business pass away. Those were the big things, but a bunch of different little things happened as well, and I was just kind of left questioning what I wanted to do with the rest of my career and life.

The horse world has so many highs and so many lows, and, you know, the game is to try not to be too high and not to be too low. I’ve always been pretty good at that, but this time, I just couldn’t seem to get out of the low. I luckily have a bunch of very good friends who encouraged me to seek some professional help, which has been great. I’ve always used a sports psychologist, but for this particular experience, I needed more than that. I think without the support, I could have been stuck in the dumps for much longer.

Throughout the process of feeling better, I worked towards enjoying all of the little successes, like people calling me and telling me how much they are enjoying their horses, how much their horses have changed their lives, and how I’ve been a part of that. That’s why I do what I do, I love making partnerships, and I think with everything that I was going through, I got disconnected from that.

I remember the weekend that I won the USEA Four-Year-Old Young Event Horse Championship with Excel Star Time to Shine. That same weekend I had a lady call me, who four months earlier, was scared to death of competing. She had bought a horse from me and was now so happy and confident. She just won a horse trial on her new horse, and that felt like more of a win than the trophy that I went home with that weekend.

As for other ways I cope with burnout, I’ve always been hard-pressed to take time off, so I probably don’t do enough for myself to help deal with burnout as I should. Connecting with my ‘why’ is a good start – ‘why’ I do what I do, and so one of the best things for me to do to manage burnout is to go to Ireland. It sounds crazy, but I’ll go for three days, and I can sleep on the way over. I get to spend some time with my partners and look at some horses. Then on the way back, I have eight uninterrupted hours to daydream and think about my goals and my priorities. It revitalizes me.

Courtney Cooper and Who’s A Star. Photo by Leslie Threlkeld.

What advice would you have for someone in the sport or industry in general who’s currently facing adversity?

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s a little bit of a taboo thing, especially, in this industry where we’re told so often to ‘just deal with it.’ I think when you’re looking at adversity, it’s really hard to feel like you’re not in it alone. There are a lot of people who care, and there are a lot of people who see you for more than just a ‘horse person’.

When everything was happening with me last fall, I went to Fair Hill and probably had the best dressage test that I had to date with one of my young horses in the 3*. And I withdrew. I knew I was not in a mental place to make good decisions, and I would have hated myself if something had happened to that horse because I had pushed myself to get through the event.

I think some people understand exactly why I did it, some people probably thought I was crazy and some people didn’t care one way or the other. I was able to look to my friends for advice and they supported my decision. I’ve become better friends with some people because I opened up to them and said, I’ve been having this challenge, and I don’t know what to do with it. There were also a couple of people who just didn’t have the bandwidth or the ability to talk to me or listen to me at the moment, but that doesn’t mean it was wrong to share in the first place.

I ended up going to Tryon and having an amazing go, but I didn’t know that would happen when I scratched from Fair Hill. Sometimes you just have to make the right choice for your mental health and safety regardless of what it might mean for the future.

Whether you ever plan to sell a horse or not, I think we can all learn a lot from what Courtney has to say about her time spent in the industry. Shortly after our talk, Courtney sent me the Berné Brown quote, “Integrity is choosing courage over comfort; choosing what is right over what is fun, fast or easy; and choosing to practice our values rather than simply professing them.”

Whatever you choose to do, with or without horses, do it with integrity, and when things get hard, don’t let your pride get in the way of asking for the support and help that you need. Our sport is dangerous, and while some might view scratching from a horse show because ‘your head just isn’t the right place’ as weak or avoidant, it’s the rational and healthy thing to do.

There are so many things in this life that are more important than a horse show, never jeopardize that for fear of what other people may say. I think a lot of times we get stuck in a future-oriented mindset — we can’t do the next big show if we don’t get a qualifying score at this one, and so we just keep pushing.

The thing is, the future isn’t guaranteed, so don’t make today miserable hoping for good things around the corner, look for the good wherever you find yourself today.

Between the Ears with Jenny Roberts

It seems like these days we look at each other’s lives through the lens of a highlight reel. We get to see the incredible trips, the best jumps, and the moments that we’re proud enough of to put on social media. What we don’t talk about is how much pressure this adds to athletes on both ends of the news feed.

Riders, whether professional or not, are made to feel like they ‘have to’ post something that makes them look cool and successful. Then, as we consume this content, we are stuck with the disillusioned perception that the sport is easy and that if you’re not succeeding, then maybe you aren’t cut out for it. I would like to take this opportunity to go ‘between the ears’ of some of the riders that make up our Eventing Nation and work to understand some of the real challenges this industry presents.

To read more from the Between the Ears series, click here.

Jenny Caras and Trendy Fernhill.
Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography

After suffering from a freak fall on a Training Level horse at Chattahoochee Hills in late October last year, Jenny Roberts made an amazing comeback, helping Team USA clinch silver at the FEI Nations Cup in Strzegom just eight months later. I got a chance to talk to Jenny about this experience and some of the other mental challenges she has faced in her career as a professional eventer in this edition of Between the Ears…

Can you tell me a little bit about how you got into the sport of eventing?

I think I first got on a horse during my second birthday party, where my parents got me a petting zoo, and there was a pony and pony rides, and I didn’t want to get off the pony. I started crying every time they pulled me off.

I started begging for riding lessons and ended up at a riding school from when I was about four years old to when I was twelve or so. Around that time, I saw an ad for an O’Connor camp that used to run in December of each year so I tore out the page and told my mom ‘This is what I want for Christmas.’ At the time, I was pretty good at the riding school, but I had no idea the sort of depth that I was going into for the camp.

With my eyes and my mind wide open, I soaked up every second of the experience, and actually, David and Karen are the ones that convinced my mom to buy me a horse. I got a mare and started focusing on training for eventing, first with Mike Winter and then with Julie Richards, who was my biggest influence growing up. I moved out of my parent’s house when I was fifteen and lived with Julie for a while. Then I eventually made my way up to Pennsylvania, and now I’m running my own business in Georgia.

Jenny Roberts and Trendy Fernhill. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Can you tell me a time that you feel like you lost your confidence in riding or competing and how you came to overcome it?

I constantly struggle with this. So before, when I was kind of coming up through the levels with my Advanced mount, Fernhill Fortitude (Forty), I had confidence issues that were based on performance and the fear of not performing well. Specifically, I was afraid to have cross-country penalties. I wasn’t necessarily afraid of falling or getting hurt, or anything like but I was a constant fear of failure.

That fear shut me down, it was like I had beat myself before I even started, so to speak. I started talking to a sports psychologist, Abigail Lufkin. Working with Abigail, I was able to find a system that helped me manage my anxiety. She helped me set performance goals instead of outcome goals, because you can’t change the outcome. I learned you can’t just say, ‘I’m going to go win’ because you can’t control if you win or not, you can just do the best that you can. So it changed my way of thinking from ‘I have to get a really good score’ into ‘I need to ride a balanced turn’ or ‘I need to practice the test more.’

Looking back, the mindset I had on Forty was crippling, because I got so hung up if I didn’t have a low dressage score because I thought ‘Now I’m not going to win’ whereas now I’m able to turn that all into a focus and attention on what I need to do to get better.

So, the work I did with Abigail helped me manage my performance anxiety much better, but last year when I had a pretty significant fall, my confidence issues resurfaced differently. I was riding a Training level horse, and it was a completely freak accident. I had just been second at the Fair Hill 3*-L the weekend before and on that day I had already ridden four horses successfully around the cross country. Then over the fourth fence, my young horse misread the question and I ended up in the hospital with a broken pelvis and some pretty significant internal injuries. Luckily, the fall happened at the end of the 2022 season, but getting back into it this year I found myself being afraid of falling over and getting hurt and it started to manifest in not wanting to do anything or change anything in front of the jump.

I think the most successful cross-country riding comes from attacking the course, being confident, and being determined and I just wasn’t able to get myself to ride like that. Meanwhile, I was still getting opportunities to develop my riding through US Equestrian, and with that came the pressure to perform, all while I was still battling some of the physical pain of my injuries.

Jenny Roberts and Trendy Fernhill at Strzegom. Photo by Mariusz Chmieliński.

As I was getting back into competing, I started having 20s on cross country where I knew I shouldn’t have. And it was happening on multiple horses, so I know it wasn’t the horse — it was me. Eventually, I started getting nervous even getting ready for cross country. I would basically have a panic attack that I was going to fall down and get hurt — even at the lower levels. Once I got on the horse and started riding, it would go away, and show jumping was fine, and I was even fine schooling, I was just really struggling at the shows.

It had been a while since I had spoken with Abigail, so I decided to call her and put in the work. We began talking 1-2 times a week, as much as I could fit into my schedule, and we started to dissect how I felt about the fall that I had had.

The more and more we dissected the incident, the more I was able to realize that I wasn’t really afraid of the fall itself, it was fear of failure resurfacing because of the experience. I remember the pain of the fall and I even got knocked out — I was able to cope with both of those experiences as well as the rehab — it’s part of the sport and I know I can’t 100% prevent something like that happening again. But I realized I’m OK with that.

What I was most afraid of was indecision, or making a decision that could lead to a failure. We came up with ways to redirect the negative thoughts I was having into positive ones, and I started to be able to think more clearly in front of the fences. I realized that I don’t have to be perfect. There are so many ways to jump these jumps, and just because one horse and rider combination rides it one way, doesn’t mean you can’t do it another as long as you are being safe.

Realizing that my need to be perfect actually was causing some unsafe riding habits really freed my mind up to ride more confidently. Working with Abigail has always been super helpful for me, because she knows the sport so well having competed to a high level herself. At both Bromont and Strzegom, I tapped into that determined and committed feeling on cross-country that I’m looking forward to build the rest of the year.

Jenny Roberts and Trendy Fernhill. Photo by Shelby Allen.

Do you have any tips or strategies for managing burnout?

I think one of the most important things for me is realizing that even though I love horses and I’m so lucky to live my passion, it’s still a job- and everyone that works is going to experience burnout at one time or another. My dad is a cardiologist, and he’s very successful and he’s been working for many years and is absolutely in love with his job, but that doesn’t mean everyday is his favorite.

Another thing that I find useful is to constantly set goals. I was pretty burnout during Covid, because I didn’t really feel like there was anything I was working towards. Having that big outcome goal in the future really helps lay the blueprint for the day to day things that I am working on. For instance, if I want to take a horse to Maryland in the fall, I work backwards and decide not just what events I am going to do, but also how I am going to be able to perform the best at those events. So then that keeps me motivated because everything feels like it has purpose as you are building toward a performance.

I will admit that sometimes once the event has come and past, I struggle with the letdown but recently I’ve been better about giving myself and my horses some time off to relax and regroup. I think it’s hard to stay motivated when you don’t know what you’re working towards, so I always go back to goals.

When I’m really burnt out physically, mentally or maybe I’m just sick, I also remind myself that sometimes the horses are better off getting lunged for a day. Obviously there will be times that you need to go to the barn no matter what, and that’s fine — but sometimes it is better to not push through. I think the horses can tell if you’re enjoying it or not too, so taking care of your mental health is important.

Jenny Caras and Fernhill Fortitude during the dressage phase, Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials, Gloucestershire, 2019. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

What advice do you have for someone in the sport who’s currently facing adversity?

Surround yourself with good people and good friends that you can count. I think that’s always straightforward when it comes to the horses; you want the best farrier, the best trainer, the best vet.

It’s the same for humans, you need to surround yourself with people that help you and lead you in the right way. Both in and out of horses. I also think that knowing that everybody’s gone through it is comforting as well. You’re not the only one that’s ever felt that way, and no matter how bad you feel now, it will improve. Keep persevering and keep going because it’s a hard sport and, there’s a lot of knocks, so celebrate the good times and lean into your support system during the bad.

Looking at Jenny in the photos of Strzegom, you can’t see someone who has struggled with confidence. You can’t see all the physical hurdles that she went through in a short period and you certainly can’t see the hours of hard work that she put into working with a Sport Psychologist to set effective goals, manage fears and develop the ability to focus in high pressure settings. You just see the smiles and the ribbons. And that’s OK, just remember that when you see some else’s success, there’s a story behind it.

Between the Ears with Jennie Saville

It seems like these days we look at each other’s lives through the lens of a highlight reel. We get to see the incredible trips, the best jumps, and the moments that we’re proud enough of to put on social media. What we don’t talk about is how much pressure this adds to athletes on both ends of the news feed.

Riders, whether professional or not, are made to feel like they ‘have to’ post something that makes them look cool and successful. Then, as we consume this content, we are stuck with the disillusioned perception that the sport is easy and that if you’re not succeeding, then maybe you aren’t cut out for it. I would like to take this opportunity to go ‘between the ears’ of some of the riders that make up our Eventing Nation and work to understand some of the real challenges this industry presents.

To read more from the Between the Ears series, click here.

Jennie Saville and Stella Artois. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

As a Certified Mental Performance Consultant, I am privy to hearing the journeys of riders from different disciplines at different stages in their career. Working on this series for Eventing Nation has given me even more insight into what riders at the top of this sport are feeling and experiencing — and it’s been awesome. Awesome to hear how open riders are about sharing the ins and outs of all the hard things that we rarely see on social media. Awesome to have readers reach out and tell me how the article helped them with something that they were struggling with.

This edition of Between the Ears is going to be a little bit different because I was on the sidelines witnessing and experiencing many of these events along with Jennie. When we sat down to do the interview for this article, we both marveled at the fact that this is the first time that we’ve had a chance to really reflect on the hardships and successes that we faced together. I know that I’ve learned a lot from Jennie and I hope that by writing this article, you guys can learn from her journey too.

Jennie Brannigan and FE Lifestyle. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s hear about how it all started…

“I got my start in riding in this little town in Illinois, just doing trail riding at a local barn. I ended up taking some lessons and doing some endurance riding. One day, I heard about three-day eventing — and I know this sounds crazy because I laugh when people say things like this, but I swear I heard about it, and I was like, ‘That’s what I should do for a living.’ And I remember having the paper omnibus in my hand and just thinking it was the coolest thing in the world even though I didn’t know what it was.”

Jennie followed this dream, and her intuition and eventually found her horse of a lifetime, Cooper. In 2008, Jennie won the Young Rider Championship on Cooper and just a year later was sent overseas to do her very first CCI4*-L competition at Bramham. “Cooper won a lot. And because of that, I had all this false confidence and put a lot of pressure on myself,” Jennie says. At Bramham, the pair was first after the dressage, but after picking up a 20 on cross country, they dropped out of the top placings.

Jennie recalls the experience as a big hit to her confidence:

“When I had that 20 at Bramham, it felt like my world was over, which is silly to think about now. Perspective is crazy, but when you get a taste of success and winning, it’s easy to become obsessed with it. At the time, it was this huge loss for me and now my time with Cooper is just a fraction of my career and I bet a ton of people don’t even know who he was.”

Fast forward 12 years and dozens of horses later and we arrive in another confidence-testing time for Jennie, where I just so happen to be along for the ride.

Jennie Brannigan and Stella Artois. Photo by Sally Spickard.

After the challenges we all faced in 2020, 2021 was looking to be an exciting year for multiple reasons. Plans that were put on hold became “full steam ahead” and we had Stella Artois (Toddie) and FE Lifestyle (Foxy) on track to do their first 5* at the Kentucky. The spring season leading up to Kentucky did not come without its challenges (because…horses) but we arrived in Kentucky ready. Unfortunately, after Foxy put in an incredible cross country round, Toddie went down in the water in a seemingly “freak accident” kind of fall. With Jennie and Toddie both OK, we were soon thereafter making arrangements to give it another go at Luhmühlen, a little over six weeks later. After a misjudged distance and a fall for Jennie early on in the course, Toddie’s 5* status was yet again put on hold.

“That was a time where I felt most defeated,” Jennie explains. “I remember going up to Erik (Duvander) and saying ‘This horse deserves to be famous, I think Boyd should ride her’ and I was questioning my abilities. And then there was so much other stuff going on in our lives, it felt like a really difficult spot to pull out of. But Erik has always been there believing in me. Even after Luhmühlen, I was put on the Boekelo team with Foxy and he selected me to be the anchor of the team and I thought ‘Wow, why? He still believes in me? That’s crazy.’ And then I was in a position where I needed to go clean for the team and I did and Erik said to me ‘This is the rider you are, this is the real you’ and I swear, ever since then I’ve been completely different.”

Coming off the high of Boekelo, Jennie and I flew back to the States and headed immediately to the 2021 Maryland 5 Star, where Toddie not only completed for the first time but did it in style with a fourth place finish.

Jennie’s ability to keep moving forward through hard times has always impressed me. As a student of Sport Psychology, I’ve always stopped to wonder “how?” How do you find the confidence within yourself to continue to get back out there with past failures staring you in the face? How are you not afraid? How can you turn it around and be so successful?

But I know how because I watched it. I was a fly on the wall for almost every lesson that Jennie took, and I don’t think Erik had anything truly negative to say. He never criticized weakness, he simply helped support, encourage, and find solutions. I think that style of coaching helped Jennie to let go of the need to win and refocus on the steps she needed to take to be successful — ironic isn’t it? The more we latch onto the outcome the further and further away we get from what we are supposed to be doing.

Jennie Brannigan and Twilightslastgleam. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

In many ways, Jennie has kept the momentum of 2021 going, adding Twlightslastgleam (Comic), an OTTB with just about every physical limitation betting against him, to her 5* roster — but unfortunately in this game, there are always bumps in the road. One of the most recent bumps came in the form of Toddie breaking down just a few fences from home at Kentucky this year. Toddie is now happily recovering at the Gardners’ farm in Chester County, PA — but obviously, that event was an emotional one. Jennie shared with me some of her thoughts on the situation:

“For me, one of the biggest obstacles in eventing is loving these horses and caring about them and having something happen where they get hurt and you kind of have to just be tough enough to keep on going. With Toddie, I couldn’t even go on the ambulance with her because I still had to get on and ride Foxy, and that takes some real compartmentalization for me because I am an extremely sensitive person. But once the heat of the moment is passed and I’ve done what I need to do, I want to be able to talk about it.

“I feel like these things happen and so many people just say ‘this is a tough sport’ and you end up not talking about it. But I don’t think it’s something we should ignore. When Toddie swapped leads twice on course, I didn’t think twice about the fact that I had to pull her up. I think so close to home that if you’re so focused on winning or finishing, it would be easy to just keep going. I’m not sure the old me would have made the decision to pull her up and I have no doubt in my mind that Toddie would have tried to keep going, but you have to be a horseman first.

“We can’t ignore the realities of the sport and horses do get hurt, but if it’s happening to you all the time, I think you have to ask where your priorities are. I know competing is about winning, and don’t get me wrong, I still love winning but the result on paper doesn’t tell the whole story. You could be winning every single horse trial on the calendar but sacrificing horsemanship to do it, and I think that horsemanship should count into how successful you feel.

Jennie Saville and Pascal claim victory in Montana. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

“The reality is we’re going to spend more time in this sport losing than we are winning — and that counts for riders like Michael Jung too. Being a good boss, taking time off to ensure you don’t get burnt out, and listening to what your horse needs should all be a part of what ‘winning’ means to you. Pulling up Toddie was a win because she’s a friend and partner to me regardless of if she ever crosses the finish flag at an event again. Heck, even finishing seventeenth place on Comic was a win, because I know he tried his heart out. Yes, you want to win, but ask yourself ‘What else is going on in my life and with my horses?’

“Being honest with yourself is an important quality to have. If you make a mistake, you have to own up to it instead of making an excuse or lying to yourself about it. I don’t feel like any less of a rider because I can admit that Tamie Smith is better at dressage than me – it just makes me want to learn from her and it inspires me to be better, so I have her teach me.

“I’ve found this sort of in-between space, where things like Comic having a pin at Kentucky or FE Connery slipping between fences at Rebecca Farm don’t faze me like that 20 I had at Bramham so many years ago — but at the same time, I’m always working to make my horses the best they can possibly be. Winning has become a byproduct of that mindset, not my only obsession or source of self-worth.”

It’s OK to set big audacious goals — we’re naturally inclined to. But when you feel yourself struggling or falling short of what you set out to accomplish, you have to be able to pause and think about what’s really important. Chances are, it’s already right in front of you.

Between the Ears with Meg Kepferle

It seems like these days we look at each other’s lives through the lens of a highlight reel. We get to see the incredible trips, the best jumps, and the moments that we’re proud enough of to put on social media. What we don’t talk about is how much pressure this adds to athletes on both ends of the news feed.

Riders, whether professional or not, are made to feel like they ‘have to’ post something that makes them look cool and successful. Then, as we consume this content, we are stuck with the disillusioned perception that the sport is easy and that if you’re not succeeding, then maybe you aren’t cut out for it. I would like to take this opportunity to go ‘between the ears’ of some of the riders that make up our Eventing Nation and work to understand some of the real challenges this industry presents.

To read more from the Between the Ears series, click here.

Meg Kepferle and Anakin. Photo by Abby Powell.

Megan Kepferle (you may know her as Meg Kep) started eventing as a kid. Despite being at a hunter jumper barn, she watched a VHS tape of Karen and David O’Connor and fell in love with the sport. Inspired, she did her first event with absolutely no preparation — and won!

With curiosity piqued, and an interest in finding more opportunities, Meg moved overseas after college to work with a British 5-star rider, where she quickly realized how much she didn’t know. Returning to the States (kicking and screaming with an expired visa) Meg went to DC to work a “real person” job, but when the economy crashed and everyone (including Meg) lost those DC jobs, she was forced to reevaluate.

Knowing that she wasn’t quite good enough at the time to be a professional rider, she took a job teaching at a lesson barn in New Jersey — and the doors started to open up from there. It was in New Jersey that Meg met Doug Payne, with whom she took her first position as a groom. While working for Doug, Meg was introduced to Sinead Halpin, joined her team, and spent the next six years traveling the world as an international groom.

Meg found herself at another crossroads when her mom passed away. Life events, whether good or bad, force us to change and adapt and Meg did just that — taking the time of reflection to make the jump from a primary focus of grooming to making a crack as a rider.

Meg now has an Advanced horse, Anakin, and a teaching and training business of her own in New Jersey. Her path hasn’t been straightforward, but she sure has learned a ton of lessons along the way. And with that, let’s go between the ears…

Megan Kepferle and Anakin. Photo by Abby Powell.

Can you tell me about a time that you lost your confidence in riding or competing and how you worked to overcome it?

“A couple of years ago, I had my first bad in-competition fall off of Anakin, at Morven Park. He’s the kind of horse that always does everything to keep me on his back, so I wasn’t used to falling off of him, and the times I had before it had never really been scary.

It was the year of Covid — and it’s hard to talk about how Covid affected my eventing career when so much was going on it in the world — but I had just hit my stride of feeling confident and planning for the future when it was all interrupted. Going back to compete in the fall, it just felt like I had lost a lot of momentum and I wasn’t quite as sharp. I had made it almost all the way around a very hard track and at the last combination, an angled brush combination, I rode exactly the way I wanted to and had planned to. I was wrong. Anakin added a stride, hit the jump and I went flying. The injury itself wasn’t terrible — I broke some ribs, dislocated my shoulder, and broke my coracoid process, which I had never even heard of — but it was very painful.

“Despite my injuries, I still contemplated trying to make it to Tryon the following month. I had always been around riders that break their bones and then are back at it two weeks later competing at the Advanced level — but I couldn’t. I couldn’t even contemplate holding a rein, let alone going over a jump. And that affected me, because I try so hard to be tough but it just wasn’t happening. So now, what was supposed to be the most exciting year of my career ended up being an off year, and then coming into the next season, my horse got hurt too.

“With all the time off, I started to fixate on my fall and I was struggling with why it had even happened in the first place. I was showing everyone the video and obsessing over this one incident. Eventually, I decided to reach out to a Sports Psychologist whom I had met with when I was moving to the Advanced level because I didn’t know how to stop obsessing on my own. I told her it was ruining my confidence, my outlook on the future, everything. And she worked with me on how to replay the memory of how I would have ridden if I hasn’t made the mistake, and that was hard, but ultimately effective. I came to the jump too slow, and I was almost overprepared. I learned the hard way that at this level, you can’t micromanage, you have to trust. So I spent the next summer jumping one-stride angles with a loopy rein and teaching my brain to trust that my horse has got it.

“I only have one horse going Advanced, so building up confidence is hard because I can’t just jump him whenever I want to. I think the whole experience really taught me a lot about trusting the process and when I went to Kentucky this spring, I actually felt prepared and confident — and that’s after four years at Advanced with the same horse. I still struggle with imposter syndrome — even though I know I’m going Advanced, I don’t identify as an upper-level rider and I don’t always feel like I belong at the table. I made a lot of friends in eventing as a groom and they’ve been amazing at making me feel like an equal even when I don’t see myself as one.”

Meg and Manoir de Carneville. Photo by Sally Spickard.

Can you tell me about a time you’ve been burnout?

“I think burnout has manifested in different ways. When I was a groom, it would hit me in a more physical sense — the job was very physical and very stressful because everything I did affected Sinead directly and I took that very seriously. I think that kind of burnout requires you to have conversations attached to purpose and luckily Sinead was always open to those conversations.

“When you’re an employee, you want to do a good job, so it can be hard to open up about bigger picture things, like ‘can I financially afford this lifestyle?’ and, ‘do I want to do it forever?’. I make it very clear to my workers at the beginning that I want them there because they enjoy their jobs — but it’s going to change. What motivates you in your early 20s isn’t going to motivate you when you’re 25, 35, or 45. Facing that stuff can be very emotional when you don’t know if you want to be where you are.

“Now I don’t think I get so emotional when I’m burnt out because I know that I am doing what I want to. I did an office job for about six weeks between grooming and going off on my own and it was terrible. So now instead of asking myself ‘Is this what I am supposed to be doing?’, I ask ‘What do I need to do to find inspiration again?’

Inspiration is a muscle that you need to exercise — it’s the fuel that keeps us going. The day-to-day can be mundane and boring but you can always actively seek sources of inspiration.”

Meg Kepferle and Anakin. Photo by Shelby Allen.

Can you tell me about another challenge you’re currently facing in the industry?

“On paper, I’m following a decent business model — I teach a ton of lessons and I have a reasonable number of horses in training. I’ve always been good at learning how to make things work financially, but it feels like this year has been really tough. I applied for a grant to go to Rebecca Farm, and I got it but I had to turn it down because I still wasn’t able to make the numbers work.

“I’ve always been the kind of person to take an opportunity, jump in with two feet and figure it out later — but I can’t do that this time because I didn’t properly plan for it. I think I’m at the point in my career where I’m going to have to sell a horse or two to keep going. I’ve never wanted to do that but I guess everyone does at some point. I get so attached to my horses, and while I’ve been lucky enough to have people help me buy them, I have to pay most of the expenses. People don’t talk about the fact that it can cost $50,000 to $100,000 a year to keep a horse going at the upper levels, especially one that is older and needs some maintenance. I have no regrets about spending the money I did to get the chance to ride at Kentucky this year, but I guess you can’t turn around and do it again and again and again without the other side of things coming in. My goal would be to have several FEI horses in the future and I’m still wrapping my head around how to make that possible.”

Meg Kep and Anakin. Photo by Jenni Autry.

What advice would you give to someone in the sport that is currently facing adversity?

“Everyone struggles. It’s part of being an athlete just as much as it’s part of being human. You have to get a little bit comfortable with being uncomfortable. If you go around thinking that the bad stuff only happens to you and nobody else, you’re going to be very unhappy in this sport.

“It’s easy to feel like your walls are closing in and everyone else is doing an amazing job, but I promise if you ask people around you, they’re going to be able to relate. Everyone sees the good and they don’t think the bad happens too. Those big moments are a very small part of this and they can’t be your only motivator because they don’t happen enough to sustain happiness. Enjoy the journey because each day is a challenge; financially, mentally, and physically.

“Adversity is part of the lifestyle and some days are going to be harder. Get creative. Learn. Pivot. Learn new skills and lean on your peers for guidance when needed. If you’re aiming for the sun, the closer you get, the hotter it is.

In the horse industry, I think it’s easy to get attached to the idea that there’s only one way to the top. It can feel like the second you have a setback or a failure you’re not cut out for it or you’re never going to make it.

Meg identified inspiration as a cure for burnout, but honestly, I believe that inspiration goes deeper than that. If you’re grooming at a five-star with the thought in the back of your mind that says “I could do this too one day”, that inspiration becomes part of your journey. You can constantly change, adapt and grow in this industry so long as you are inspired to do so.

When I was a young groom, I went to Meg’s birthday party at The Fork, and they played a slide show of all the amazing experiences Meg had had grooming for Sinead. That inspired me. This stuff is contagious, so if we can stay open and connect about how to get through the tough stuff, we can also continue to inspire each other to create opportunities for each other in the future!

Dr. Tyler Held EdD CMPC is a professional groom and Certified Mental Performance Consultant. You may have seen her over the last few years working for International 5* Jennie Brannigan or listened to an episode of her podcast, The Whole Equestrian.

Tyler started riding in summer camp at the age of 5 and essentially never looked back. She obtained her Undergraduate degrees in Animal Science and Equine Business Management from the University of Findlay in 2014. During this time, she spent her summers doing her first working student job at an eventing barn and quickly became obsessed with the sport. After experiencing some mental blocks in her own riding, she decided to focus more on grooming and learning more about Sport Psychology. In 2017 she moved to Chester County, PA to work as a Vet Tech and groom for Dr. Kevin Keane, which opened a lot of doors in the eventing community.

Just as she finished her Master’s Degree in Sport and Performance Psychology, she took the reins at Brannigan Eventing as head groom. Now partially retired from grooming, Tyler is focusing on growing her consulting business, Thought Quest Mental Performance Solutions, and helping Equestrian athletes navigate the mental challenges that come with the sport.

Between the Ears with Hannah Sue Hollberg

It seems like these days we look at each other’s lives through the lens of a highlight reel. We get to see the incredible trips, the best jumps, and the moments that we’re proud enough of to put on social media. What we don’t talk about is how much pressure this adds to athletes on both ends of the news feed.

Riders, whether professional or not, are made to feel like they ‘have to’ post something that makes them look cool and successful. Then, as we consume this content, we are stuck with the disillusioned perception that the sport is easy and that if you’re not succeeding, then maybe you aren’t cut out for it. I would like to take this opportunity to go ‘between the ears’ of some of the riders that make up our Eventing Nation and work to understand some of the real challenges this industry presents.

To read more from the Between the Ears series, click here.

Hannah Sue Hollberg grew up on the back of a horse. Her mom had a lesson program in Kentucky, so as a young rider, she got exposed to anything and everything- from Polo to working at Churchill Downs and of course, eventing. When she was old enough, Hannah made her way to Karen and David O’Connor’s, where she was a working student and where she met her long-time sponsor, Ms. Jacqueline Mars.

Hannah has had an exciting career in eventing, including being a member of the 2011 Pan Am Gold Medal team, multiple trips overseas representing Team USA, plenty of 5* experiences, and a recent third place finish in the MARS Bromont CCI4*-L. Amidst the success, Hannah shares that there have been plenty of setbacks and challenges along the way. So let’s dig in and go between the ears.

Hannah Sue Hollberg and Harbour Pilot. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Can you tell me about a time in your career when your confidence was the lowest and how you navigated through it?

“I think sometimes you don’t even know you’ve lost your confidence until you’ve found it again. At least, that was the case for me. At one point, I had a couple of horses that really made me doubt my eye to a fence. I was finding a distance that I thought was right and I would commit to it and it wouldn’t work out, and I ended up having some pretty bad falls that way.

Despite that, I was still getting sent overseas and I kept making mistakes on cross country and I couldn’t figure out why. In hindsight, I know I lacked the knowledge and experience to make changes but at the time, I didn’t know what to do but to blame myself.

That starts to weigh on you, and so I ended up in about a six-year period where I just didn’t think I was any good at eventing, or at least cross country. I was just terrified, and not even terrified of falling, just terrified of making a mistake. So instead of focusing on the changes I needed to make to ride more productively, I was focusing on all the stuff that I could mess up. It wasn’t a very healthy mindset to be in.

When I started to realize that my confidence really was an issue, getting it back was a bit of a two-fold process. On the riding and training side of things, I needed to break the cycle of just making mistakes and being frustrated about them.

I started riding with my now husband, Matt Hollberg and he changed the way I viewed the process. Every problem I would run into, he would help me find the answer and every mistake had a reason and a way to improve it. He was so systematic and nonjudgemental about it, that I started to be less judgemental and more solutions-focused myself. I don’t think there was anything wrong with the programs that I was in, but sometimes when you’re stuck in a cycle like that, it just takes someone saying the same things in a different way to help you get through it.

Then on the other side of things, I started working with a mindset coach, Natalie Hummel. I’ve known her since we were kids living in Kentucky, but we had lost contact for a while. I started seeing some of her posts on Instagram, and I felt a strong pull to contact her. I fought the urge for over six months, but finally, I realized that I needed to reach out and I’m so glad I did.

I had my first meeting with her while I was at the AECs about three years ago, and I was sitting in a chair in the cross-country field while they were running the Advanced and we just started talking through some stuff. When the subject of my suspension came up, I started crying — like really crying. And all these people were walking by, but that was the very first step to healing my trauma of being suspended and starting to heal my brokenness and all these things that I had told myself about myself that weren’t true.

I’ve been working with her ever since and she comes to the big events with me and she has completely changed my life. I feel like I can train my horses better, I’m not so hard on myself and I’ve learned how to manage my mind productively. I’ve learned that having a run out on cross country doesn’t define who you are and it doesn’t have to affect your confidence in the way that it does when you feel as if everything (including your self-worth) is riding on the results of an event.

It’s crazy how it had changed the way I focus. For the longest time, I was so afraid of all my mistakes and I was just hoping that I wasn’t going to make them, and then I would end up making more mistakes because I couldn’t think about the things I was supposed to be doing. Now I have the mental freedom to think and react to what’s happening in the present moment, which has made a world of difference in my recent results. The mind is so strong, it’s such a huge player in sports and life and if you’re not on top of it, it does have the power to ruin your experiences.”

Hannah Sue Hollberg and Capitol HIM. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Have you ever experienced burnout? How did you overcome it?

“I love horses so much, and I don’t think I could find anything else that I would want to do, but at the same time, going through all the low points in my career, I was miserable. Sometimes I would be successful randomly, but there was so much negativity that I was putting on myself it was a real challenge. For me, getting over the burnout went hand in hand with rebuilding my confidence and recruiting the help of Matt and Natalie, and countless other members of my team who have helped pull me out of the slump.”

Hannah Sue Burnett and Harbour Pilot. Photo by Abby Powell.

How do you handle the loss of a partnership due to injury or retirement?

“I had a horse get injured this winter that I’ve worked so hard on and just got going well at the Advanced level. Luckily enough, I haven’t had an injury such as that in a while, so I almost forgot the sting of it. And it is disheartening because you put so much time and effort and thought into the constant care of these horses and there’s so much emotion that goes into it. And then you have to see your partner locked up in a stall because you don’t want them to get worse, and it’s just hard to see. I don’t have a ton of horses, and there’s no easy answer for dealing with injuries, but, you kind of have to just roll with the punches. When I’m upset, I let myself feel upset and then channel the energy that I would have put into that horse into something that I can improve on.

As far as retirement goes, I know I’m lucky that I got to retire William after a very full career. I knew before I ran him at Maryland that it would be his last event because he didn’t owe anything else to me- and he was sound and happy. It’s strange not having him at the shows after such a long career together but at the same time, it’s now a little bit like I’m starting over without the baggage of the experiences that I had with him.

I think for any of these kinds of setbacks, it’s important that I allow myself to feel how I feel and don’t judge myself for it. Then I try to focus on something positive and go from there. For a long time, I would classically bury all emotions but then I’d be heading to the start box at a huge event and all the negative emotions would creep up on me out of nowhere.”

Hannah Sue Burnett and Harbour Pilot. Photo by Shelby Allen.

What about advice for dealing with injuries yourself?

“It takes a long time for your mind to let go of the possibility of feeling and being hurt so you have to give yourself a lot of time. I’ve gotten hurt a few times and every time I’ve had to go through this process of healing my brain along with my body. So many people try to rush back into the saddle or back to their next event and I think that hurts them in the long run.

When you come back from injury and you feel hesitancy towards riding, it’s a completely normal response. That’s your brain trying to protect you. I had to learn to switch from trying to bottle those feelings up to kind of marveling at my mind instead of being judgemental of it. It’s OK to feel a little off or uncertain when you’re coming back from injury because it’s just your brain trying to keep you alive. So give yourself as much time as you need to get back to feeling good and do it progressively instead of just expecting to be right back to normal because that’s not realistic.”

Hannah Sue Burnett and Capitol HIM. Photo by Abby Powell.

What advice would you have for someone in the sport that’s currently facing adversity?

“I mean, I think we’re all facing adversity at all times in this sport. So this goes for everyone. You have to find a good team and surround yourself with people that understand you and allow you to make mistakes and are supportive.

If you feel like you can’t make mistakes or that you’re worried about making mistakes all the time, I think you need to change your team. It’s not easy to do, but I think in looking around at all the people that are successful around me, especially recently, we’re starting to figure out you’ll be more successful when you’re with someone who brings out the best in you. And it’s multiple people. You might have the best boyfriend in the world, but if he stresses you out during a high-pressure situation, maybe he shouldn’t be in the barns when you’re getting ready for cross country. If you have a groom or help with your horse they should be someone that you enjoy being around.

You have to respect each other completely and complement each other. And I think it’s important to realize that even if a team or a coach or an environment is awesome, it still might not be awesome for you — so you have to go out and find the right fit!”

Hannah is working towards the opportunity to represent Team USA this year at the Pan Ams, with her new mindset on board. Freeing up the focus from past mistakes to new opportunities.

I think the biggest lesson here is that you make mistakes, mistakes don’t make you. When you can separate who you are from how you do, be patient, nonjudgemental, and self-aware, you will grow at a much faster rate than if you get stuck in a loop of negativity and fear.

Dr. Tyler Held EdD CMPC is a professional groom and Certified Mental Performance Consultant. You may have seen her over the last few years working for International 5* Jennie Brannigan or listened to an episode of her podcast, The Whole Equestrian.

Tyler started riding in summer camp at the age of 5 and essentially never looked back. She obtained her Undergraduate degrees in Animal Science and Equine Business Management from the University of Findlay in 2014. During this time, she spent her summers doing her first working student job at an eventing barn and quickly became obsessed with the sport. After experiencing some mental blocks in her own riding, she decided to focus more on grooming and learning more about Sport Psychology. In 2017 she moved to Chester County, PA to work as a Vet Tech and groom for Dr. Kevin Keane, which opened a lot of doors in the eventing community.

Just as she finished her Master’s Degree in Sport and Performance Psychology, she took the reins at Brannigan Eventing as head groom. Now partially retired from grooming, Tyler is focusing on growing her consulting business, Thought Quest Mental Performance Solutions, and helping Equestrian athletes navigate the mental challenges that come with the sport.

Between the Ears with Isabelle Bosley

It seems like these days we look at each other’s lives through the lens of a highlight reel. We get to see the incredible trips, the best jumps, and the moments that we’re proud enough of to put on social media. What we don’t talk about is how much pressure this adds to athletes on both ends of the news feed.

Riders, whether professional or not, are made to feel like they ‘have to’ post something that makes them look cool and successful. Then, as we consume this content, we are stuck with the disillusioned perception that the sport is easy and that if you’re not succeeding, then maybe you aren’t cut out for it. I would like to take this opportunity to go ‘between the ears’ of some of the riders that make up our Eventing Nation and work to understand some of the real challenges this industry presents.

To read more from the Between the Ears series, click here.

Isabelle Bosley and Night Quality. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Isabelle Bosley is no stranger to the international horse show scene. She’s spent the past 8 years working for five-star event rider, Lillian Heard Wood, as a groom, rider, and just about everything in between. After several overseas trips grooming for Lillian, Izzy got her first crack at overseas competition herself in the spring of 2022.

What started as a grant to compete at Bramham ended up as a double whammy when Izzy was named to the Nations Cup team at Houghton Hall (talk about pressure!). The experience proved to be less than ideal from an outcome-based perspective: at Houghton, Izzy had a fall at the water, and she ended up retiring on course at Bramham. When I asked Izzy about her experience, she said, “Honestly, in all the failure, I’ve probably learned more than I have in five years before getting to that point.” Hopefully, by hearing about Izzy’s journey and experience, you will get a chance to learn something too!

Can you tell me a little bit about your horse background and start in eventing?

“Both of my parents train racehorses so I kind of grew up from day one in the barn with them. They didn’t put any pressure on me to do horses, and I don’t think they ever wanted me to make it a full-time career, but I picked up the bug. Once I had my first eventing lesson, I thought “this is it!” and never looked back.

“I first worked for Lillian in a ‘gap year’ after high school, but my parents made me go back to take classes at a community college the following fall. That year made me realize that I didn’t want to be in school and that I wanted to do horses full-time. My parents have always been supportive of me, but with their own experiences of what life is like in the horse industry, they wanted me to be realistic about what I was getting myself into. They told me ‘If you’re going to not do school, then you’re going to have to start paying your bills and making your way in the sport because it’s going to be tough, so you should start learning now.’

“In hindsight, I’m glad that I did go to school for that year because I think if I had gone straight into horses I would have always thought ‘Should I have gone to school?’ But I know I’m where I’m supposed to be one hundred percent. This is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.”

Isabelle Bosley and Night Quality. Photo by Erin Gilmore Photography.

Talk me through your 2022 season. What roadblocks did you face and how did it affect your confidence?

“When I first moved Millbrook (Night Quality) up to Advanced in 2021, we had almost a fairytale season. He was going great, so I set my sights on getting a grant to go to Bramham the following year. I got the grant, and on top of that, I was named to the Nation’s Cup team for Houghton as a prep run. As a young kid doing their first trip overseas, I wasn’t as nervous as you would think, because I had done it so many times as a groom for Lillian. I knew the atmosphere and the competition would be intense because riders over there are insanely good. All I was thinking was, ‘This is going to be awesome for us.’

“The winter before my trip, I dislocated my shoulder, which put a little bit of a wrench in my plans. It was the second time I had dislocated that shoulder and I was feeling the physical effects of that and worried about my physical fitness. My prep runs didn’t feel quite like the runs I did in the fall before, which could have been partially my shoulder but I think maybe the difficulty of the level was just catching up with us. I was a young rider not seeing my strides all the way around and my horse was pretty green too. Looking back, I did progress through the levels pretty quickly and some of the gaps in my fundamentals just started to creep up on us.

“By the time we made it overseas, it was like the wheels just kind of fell off. We weren’t 100% confident and we were going around some of the toughest tracks that we had ever seen. When I fell off at Houghton, everyone on the team was incredible and supportive, but what was pressing on me was that 2 weeks later I was supposed to go to a four-long. Not exactly an ideal situation! But I had amazing support and connections through the team, so I pressed on.

“Another challenging factor was that I felt Millbrook wasn’t feeling 100% himself. I had to battle with this a lot because I constantly wondered if I was just overthinking things. I was overseas all day obsessing over my one horse when I’m normally staying busy all day with Lillian’s entire barn. I had to try to navigate my intuition with all of the heightened pressure of the environment that I was in. At Bramham, he gave one hundred and twenty percent around that course. And I mean, that course was extremely technical and challenging. We got ten minutes around the course and then got eliminated at the last water, where there was a monstrous drop in that I couldn’t make happen.

“Hindsight is 20/20. When I returned home, I got some vet work done and it turned out that he tested positive for EPM. Interestingly, EPM can lie dormant in a horse and be triggered by stress, which I think is what happened to Millbrook, with all the stress of the trip. Looking back, I feel like I should have trusted my gut a bit more when I thought he wasn’t feeling well, but that’s kind of just part of the learning game. The line between trusting your gut and overthinking is a tricky one! After getting the EPM sorted, Millbrook ended up having a pretty bad abscess that prevented us from having a fall season. It was almost like in a way, my whole year was botched and in another, I had learned so many important lessons I know I will take with me through the rest of my career.”

Isabelle Bosley and Night Quality. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

How have you moved forward from the experience?

“I ended up dislocating my shoulder a third time in the fall of 2022, so I had to get surgery that included a three-month recovery with absolutely no riding. I thought about it and the longest I have gone without riding since I can remember was three weeks when I dislocated my shoulder the first time.

“I’m the kind of person who feels weird when I’m not in the barn, so this was definitely a mental and emotional struggle for me. I was throwing myself a pity party, and then I realized that this, too, is part of the game. So I was able to rechannel that energy into positive reflection. I thought about everything I have done and where I want to go.

“I broke down my approach to riding and really took the time to refresh and refocus my mindset. I think the most important lesson I learned is that we can start to get selfish about our goals but we have to remember that the horse is a huge part of this too. I came into this year thinking we’d be so behind, but he’s come out this year feeling phenomenal. I think he needed the time to refresh just as much as I did.

“I feel really good about the way things have gone and now I’m just focused on getting both of our confidence levels where they need to be. I’ve just tried to go back to the basics with him a little bit and kind of establish our foundation a bit better, taking it show by show and not putting too much pressure on any year-end goals.”

Isabelle Bosley and Night Quality. Photo by Abby Powell.

Have you ever experienced burnout?

“I think the times I’ve felt most burnout and have questioned what I was doing coincided with not feeling like I was getting anywhere and being successful. I’ve always made the most of my time riding whatever horse that I’ve got. For a long time, I just rode whatever ex-racehorse I got from my Dad and these were great experiences but I wasn’t moving up levels.

“I worked for Lillian for five years before finding Millbrook, and right before he came into the barn was when I was most burnt out. It’s always helped that my parents are in horses and they’ve always given me good advice on those hard times and feeling stuck. Millbrook has been incredible for my career, but the reality is sometimes you’re just going to be the rider without the horse and you have to be able to keep perspective during those times. You have to take what you can get.

“You might get burnout from not having a horse, just like you might get burnout from going to too many competitions. You kind of have to roll with it. And when I am really feeling burnt out, just on the workdays themselves, I try to do something non-horse related. I have a lot of friends that aren’t a part of the horse industry and that’s been important to me as well.”

Isabelle Bosely and Night Quality. Photo by Shelby Allen.

What would you tell someone who is facing their own adversity in the sport?

“Talk to someone. A friend. A professional. Even sometimes just reading an article is enough. You’ll find that any rider, even the professionals at the top of the sport all go through adversity and it makes you feel better about the fact that even if you are going through a low, you’re in good company. For me, thinking about the fact that all these great riders have all dealt with the safe stuff I am reminded that it doesn’t make me any less of a rider and it doesn’t mean I’m good enough or that I should quit.

“It’s just part of the game, you gotta just be able to handle it and keep moving forward with it. And that’s a lesson that will help you not just in horses, it’s in many things that you would do in life.”

Izzy’s shoulder is healed and she and Millbrook are getting back to competing, with a new timeline and new perspective. For me, hearing Izzy’s story highlights the paradox around goals. Of course, you have to have them, especially if you want to be on teams and ride at a high level — but sometimes it’s in pursuit of those goals that we lose sight of what is important.

We let the pressure of the future change the way we experience the here and now. Realistically, if you are in horses, you are going to go through struggles, so the more we can normalize talking about them and helping each other navigate the rough patches, the more our industry will benefit.

Between the Ears with Sydney Solomon

It seems like these days we look at each other’s lives through the lens of a highlight reel. We get to see the incredible trips, the best jumps, and the moments that we’re proud enough of to put on social media. What we don’t talk about is how much pressure this adds to athletes on both ends of the news feed.

Riders, whether professional or not, are made to feel like they ‘have to’ post something that makes them look cool and successful. Then, as we consume this content, we are stuck with the disillusioned perception that the sport is easy and that if you’re not succeeding, then maybe you aren’t cut out for it. I would like to take this opportunity to go ‘between the ears’ of some of the riders that make up our Eventing Nation and work to understand some of the real challenges this industry presents.

To read more from the Between the Ears series, click here.

Sydney Soloman and Early Review C. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Sydney Solomon just had her first crack at the big leagues, taking Laurie Cameron’s Early Review C around the majority of the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event CCI5* track before parting ways at fence 23, just before the 10-minute mark of an 11:26 minute course. So much pressure can go into the outcome of an event like this, so I wanted to get between the ears with Sydney to talk about her experience and her career in the sport that got her here.

Can you tell me a little bit about your background and introduction to eventing?

“My first experience of eventing was when a trainer of mine took me and some other girls from my barn to watch the Fair Hill three-star [now 4*]. We watched a PBS documentary on the O’Connor Event team on the way, so it really was a crash course on the sport. I got my first horse, Bella when I was eight and she was four, and as you can imagine, it wasn’t an easy partnership. Even when I was 10 and Bella was six, eventing the mare didn’t seem like a viable option. So I took my Mom’s draft horse around Beginner Novice and Novice, which was fun to watch because I was tiny and she was giant. Eventually, I got another horse, Lillian Pink, who is actually closely related to my upper-level mount today, Coco. Lily’s full sister is Coco’s mother. Lily and I did young riders and 30 or so Prelims together while training with Lillian Heard. Lillian Heard also helped me shape Bella into a Prelim horse, something that I wasn’t sure would be possible. So with both horses, I got a ton of mileage before I had even finished high school. When Lillian Pink had to be put down after a freak incident in her stall, I was so grateful to have Bella to keep me going.”

How did you end up running your own training business?

“After I graduated high school, I took a gap year to go work for Phillip Dutton as a working student. After two years there, I had three horses in training and Phillip was downsizing his program at the time, so at the age of 20, I essentially went out on my own, renting stalls at True Prospect farm for my horses. At the time, I was thinking I might still go back to school, so I didn’t want to commit to another program, and also with three horses, it’s difficult to go and work for someone else. I had this great opportunity to ride all these horses and I wasn’t sure I would get it somewhere else. In hindsight, maybe I should have gone down to one horse and been in a program, but one of the things I got from going out on my own so young was really learning to think for myself. It was terrifying not having help all the time, but I competed a lot, and had some really accelerated learning. There was a lot of failure but I also had a lot of success. I have to give so much credit to Laurie who trusted me throughout that experience. I did learn how to be very independent and I did come around to be more comfortable doing things without someone telling me every step of the way, although even now I wish I had people telling me what to do more.”

Sydney Solomon and Early Review CBF. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Can you tell me a little bit about your confidence as a rider?

“I definitely had plenty of horse shows that didn’t go the way I wanted them to. That being said, sometimes you can throw everything you have at making your horses go well and you’re still going to go and have problems I’ve had plenty of events where I’ve taken a ton of lessons beforehand but if the horse doesn’t like a ditch it’s not going to jump a ditch and at the end of the day those lessons didn’t matter, but also to be able to reflect back at those events and see that things did go well. I think I am constantly up and down in confidence, and maybe a lot of other riders feel this way as well.

“In 2021 my confidence was at its lowest, I felt like Coco and I would have one really good event and then we would have one really bad event and our best phase was cross country, and all of a sudden we weren’t getting around the cross country- and I was constantly questioning what I was doing wrong. We discovered that she was having issues tying up but it was still me saying ‘wow, I rode horribly’ and sometimes I still have events where I feel like that and sometimes I think ‘I have so much experience, I should be better at this than I am’ – I have probably done over 120 Prelims but it’s still not an easy level and taking any horse around Prelim is not easy.

“Sometimes you get on one horse one day and you can see every distance perfectly and you think that you’ve figured it out, riding horses, and then you get on the next one and they’re leaving the ground at awkward distances and you remember that you don’t.”

Have you ever experienced burnout? How do you handle burnout?

“The hard thing for me with burnout is that if things aren’t going well, I can’t stop. I feel like I can’t take time off because I need to make progress. The times that I am most burnout are when I feel like I’m just not good enough. It doesn’t have anything to do with the crazy hours or anything like that- it wouldn’t matter if I’m having easy days and getting done at 4 p.m. or a hard day and working until 8 p.m..

“When I feel this way, taking lessons usually helps me get out of it. I go into those lessons with an intention and I usually see results in those circumstances. I go to someone that I trust and feel comfortable with. I genuinely feel like I just have to get better at this, and that’s probably something that every rider feels for their entire career that they just have to improve their skills and for me, that’s the best therapy for a lack of confidence” Lessons give me actionable advice that gives me the plan to move forward with.”

OK, let’s talk about Kentucky, what emotions did you feel throughout the event?

“I was more emotional than I have been in a very long time. I’ve done a lot of four-stars and that’s pretty close to the top level of the sport but it’s nothing compared to the energy at the five-star level. Being at Kentucky I teared up a little as they said ‘Early Review, accepted’ [at the Horse Inspection] and that’s so not me. I’ve learned to separate from the emotions of the sport a lot, you kind of have to in order to survive because if you let yourself feel all the emotions and disappointments that come with this sport, you can’t live like that, because there’s too much. Even on a good day, I’m not crying tears of joy even if I’ve had the best show of my life. Going into the dressage ring, I also felt myself shed a tear. For my next five-star, I don’t think I’ll feel so emotional.”

What were you most afraid of?

“Going into the event my biggest fear was that I was going to go and have a rough cross country round and that’s exactly what happened. I knew I was going to be nervous about cross country because I’ve been nervous about that course for the past two years. I felt like my first few jumps I really attacked and that was great.

“But at some point in the course, my eye wasn’t seeing them forward anymore. I so desperately didn’t want to have something stupid happen that I wasn’t going to trust my eye to see a big open distance. At the coffin, Coco was amazing to get it done, but in my head, I already started telling myself ‘here goes my embarrassing cross country round in front of hundreds of thousands of people.’

“It’s one thing when you go to an Advanced horse trials and you’re in the back of the course and you have a bad jump and the only one who sees it is the jump judge but at Kentucky, there are so many people watching everything you, and maybe I should have ignored that, but it helped me at the beginning of the course and hindered me as soon as things started to get a little rocky.

“We were clean up until fence 23 — basically minute 10 of an 11:26 minute course, and when I fell, I was upset, but I felt like I deserved it and I was just happy that Coco was ok. I wasn’t upset that I fell off, I was upset that I hadn’t ridden better throughout the rest of the course, especially since Coco was so game for it, and she tried so hard. I kept saying to myself, what an amazing horse I am sitting on, but I’m just riding so poorly, and it was definitely worse in the places where there were tons of people watching.

“It was a great learning experience because I know focusing too much on what I looked like to everyone else took away from my ability to focus on riding better. Next time, instead of thinking about the fear of a bad round, I’m going to tell myself that ‘I’m going to go out there and do my best’”

Sydney Solomon and Early Review C. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

What advice would you give to a young rider with the hopes of making it to the five-star level?

“Find someone who you trust and who is willing to put time into you and learn everything you can from that person.”

At Kentucky, Sydney was awarded the Richard Picken Sportsmanship Award, voted on by other riders at the event. This award was created to honor the late jumping trainer Richard Picken and was awarded to Sydney for her demonstration of a measurable feat of sportsmanship during the event. As a competitor, Sydney is probably one of the nicest human beings that you will find on the scene. It’s not easy to go to Kentucky and come up just short of finishing, but Sydney did so with class, and never for a second laid blame on her horse.

I am so glad that Sydney opened up about her experience and where her focus was on Cross Country day, because fear of other people’s opinions is common at any level.

While seeking the approval of others is a very natural phenomenon, it takes a lot of the rider’s power away. The more we focus on not embarrassing ourselves, the less we focus on the process of riding well and being in the moment. If I tell you “don’t think about a pink elephant”, I dare you not to think about a pink elephant. It’s almost impossible.

Similarly, when we tell ourselves “don’t mess up in front of all these people” all our brain hears is “you’re going to mess up in front of all these people.” Enter: the paradox of wanting to do well, without trying too hard.

I know Sydney will continue to crack on at her goals, and I am excited to see how learning from this experience will shape her mindset in the future.

Between the Ears with Stephanie Simpson

It seems like these days we look at each other’s lives through the lens of a highlight reel. We get to see the incredible trips, the best jumps, and the moments that we’re proud enough of to put on social media. What we don’t talk about is how much pressure this adds to athletes on both ends of the news feed.

Riders, whether professional or not, are made to feel like they ‘have to’ post something that makes them look cool and successful. Then, as we consume this content, we are stuck with the disillusioned perception that the sport is easy and that if you’re not succeeding, then maybe you aren’t cut out for it. I would like to take this opportunity to go ‘between the ears’ of some of the riders that make up our Eventing Nation and work to understand some of the real challenges this industry presents.

To read more from the Between the Ears series, click here.

Boyd Martin’s Tsetserleg and his groom Stephanie Simpson. Photo by Leslie Threlkeld.

Grooming, especially at the highest level, is one of those jobs that looks glamorous from the outside. With international trips and the opportunity to be part of the success of elite riders, there ARE a lot of really cool things about being a groom. As with anything, however, the lifestyle doesn’t come without its challenges.

Having spent some time as a professional 5* groom myself, I know how turbulent the position can be. I’ve always felt like in Equestrian sports, there is equal opportunity for triumph or heartbreak and as a groom, you really feel those highs and lows right alongside the riders. Stephanie Simpson, who has been Boyd Martin’s head groom since May of 2018, has an uncanny ability to work hard and remain positive regardless of what kind of pressure is on at any given moment. This edition of Between the Ears is a must-read for anyone interested in pursuing a life with horses.

What do you think helps you maintain the lifestyle of a groom?

“I think one of the biggest things that has helped me maintain my lifestyle as a groom is my obsession with the sport. My involvement in this program is much more than a nine-to-five job, it has become my entire lifestyle I am in a never-ending pursuit to improve. I find the work and hustle quite rewarding and something I look forward to every day.”

How do you manage to have your own goals while grooming? Do you still ride and compete or have any desire to do so?

“Managing my own goals has become two-fold. On the one hand, I oversee this program that is full of horses at every level that I am incredibly dedicated to, which is always my first priority. On the other hand, I do enjoy riding and bringing along my own project horses. Most days I ride once Boyd is done for the day and the majority of the work is done. It’s very rewarding for me to bring along my own horse and still be able to work on myself. If nothing else, it’s 45 minutes when I don’t have my phone on me and for the most part am not on the clock. As one can imagine, I am on the road quite a bit so my horse’s competition schedule is nearly non-existent but Boyd has ridden him at a few shows for me which has been so valuable for his education.”

Stephanie Simpson and Tsetserleg in Tokyo. Photo via Stephanie Simpson.

How does managing a head groom’s position affect your confidence about your own riding?

“My role as a groom has given me a very unique perspective on my own riding. I am very fortunate to be in the presence of some of the best horsemen, trainers, and coaches in the world and I get the opportunity to use bits and pieces of this knowledge in my own riding. With a program as big as ours, there are so many different horses that all go differently which makes for a well-rounded perspective. I’ve spent an immeasurable number of hours watching lessons, setting jumps, and listening to instruction at every level which I can apply to my own riding. I also think that being surrounded by professionals has given me a very good understanding of how difficult this sport can be but also how important having a good program is.”

Have you ever experienced burnout and what do you do to avoid/overcome burnout?

“I think that most people in this industry have experienced burnout at some level. For me, burnout is something that I am aware of and try to avoid at all costs. Luckily I find a lot of happiness and satisfaction in my job and thrive in chaos. In our program, there is a lot of consistency which satisfies the type A part of my personality, but also a lot of variety which helps keep things interesting. In order to avoid burnout I think that it’s important to find small things that keep you engaged whether that’s horse related or not. I also think that mastering skills and learning your trade, whatever that may be, adds to the feeling of accomplishment which continues to create drive.”

I want to highlight what Steph says here about ‘mastering skills and learning your trade.’ In a fast-paced and physically demanding job such as grooming, I think most people turn to things like Netflix to take the pressure off, relax and try not to get burnout.

It is counterintuitive but sometimes more work, if directed in the right way might be just what you need to rekindle the spark for the job. Feeling like you are mastering and fulfilling your talent is the highest level of psychological development and is a need that drives us all forward. Don’t let physical exhaustion get in the way of mastering the skills you need to feel like you are becoming the best version of yourself.

Tsetserleg and Stephanie Simpson. Photo by Sally Spickard.

What do you think is the biggest obstacle you’ve faced in your career?

“My biggest obstacle on the way to achieving the things that I have would be the concept of self-belief. I did not grow up in the horse industry so the idea that I’ve been able to work my way into the manager role at the top of the sport is something that sometimes feels surreal. To evolve from a struggling working student to grooming at the Olympics and winning a 5* sometimes makes me wonder if I’m even qualified to be in these situations. I think that everyone goes through some sort of existential crisis as they evolve in their career and transform from the one asking the questions and becoming the person being asked.”

What advice do you have for someone in the sport who is currently facing adversity?

“My advice for someone facing adversity in the sport would be to know your worth and seek opportunities that get you where you want to go. I would encourage everyone to work as hard as possible and make connections with people who add value to your life. It’s important to make genuine connections with people within the industry because chances are most people can relate and possibly offer a solution. I’ve been very lucky to climb this ladder but it hasn’t been without a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. Adversity is something that people face in every aspect of life, so I would use it as motivation rather than the reason why things didn’t work out.”

If you’ve ever seen Steph in action, you know that her work ethic speaks for itself. She’s the kind of person who can take eight horses to a jumper show all day on a Tuesday, get home, repack the trailer, and head to an FEI Event with seven more horses less than 12 hours later, always with a smile on her face.

There’s a certain level of passion, for the horses and for the sport that you have to have to get you through the hard times in this sport. The fact of the matter is there will always be setbacks, whether you are a groom or a rider, plans will change, horses will go lame, and sometimes it’s not all sunshine and daisies.

You can’t choose what hardships might come your way, but you can choose to put value and passion into the work that you are doing so they never seem too overwhelming.

Between the Ears with Alexa Lapp

It seems like these days we look at each other’s lives through the lens of a highlight reel. We get to see the incredible trips, the best jumps, and the moments that we’re proud enough of to put on social media. What we don’t talk about is how much pressure this adds to athletes on both ends of the news feed.

Riders, whether professional or not, are made to feel like they ‘have to’ post something that makes them look cool and successful. Then, as we consume this content, we are stuck with the disillusioned perception that the sport is easy and that if you’re not succeeding, then maybe you aren’t cut out for it. I would like to take this opportunity to go ‘between the ears’ of some of the riders that make up our Eventing Nation and work to understand some of the real challenges this industry presents.

To read more from the Between the Ears series, click here.

Alexa Lapp and Cambalda. Photo by Amy Flemming-Waters / AFW Photography.

Nearly every time I open my Facebook feed, there is a “help wanted” ad looking for working students, grooms, and riders. People who stay in a program for more than six months to a year are becoming an exception, not a rule.

From the outside looking in, a combination of burnout, confidence issues, financial issues, and unrealistic expectations are plaguing the industry. For this edition of Between the Ears, I decided to catch up with Alexa Lapp, who has spent over eight years working for Jennie Saville (nee Brannigan). Alexa is currently handing over the reins of her self-produced CCI3* horse, Pasco, to Jennie and going to take some time to explore the world outside of horses; however, her hard work over the last decade is something that can’t be ignored.

What are the main reasons you stayed in one program instead of “barn hopping” like many in the industry do?

I’ve been working for Jennie full-time for eight years but I helped her on and off for the two years before that. I think the main reason I stayed is that it was a good fit, I liked Jennie’s teaching style and her horsemanship. I also do think being loyal to someone will more likely give you opportunities. You can’t expect someone to take a chance on you if they think you may up and leave in a few months. That being said, you shouldn’t stay somewhere if it’s not the right fit; I got lucky that my first trainer knew Jennie and that we got along so well right from the beginning.

Alexa is right about putting the effort in to get the opportunities out. I think so many people think they deserve to ride and compete right away, but development as an equestrian athlete is a long haul. Alexa got to run her first Advanced on Jennie’s CCI5* mount Cambalda (Ping), but that opportunity was not just given to her — it was earned through hard work, time, and dedication.

Can you tell me about a time that you lost your confidence in riding or competing?

When I went to Young Riders in 2016, I was the trailblazer for my area because I had never had a stop on my horse ever and I ended up being eliminated. Jennie gave me some really good advice to help me overcome this. She said ‘it may feel like your world is ending at the moment but in a few months, it’s not going to matter’. We went home and schooled the same thing she stopped at, went to my next show and she jumped a similar thing. It’s good to remind yourself that they are animals, and you can always school them better or train them better when you make a mistake or one of you loses confidence. There’s also no shame in stepping back down and building yourself back up.

Jennie’s advice is aligned with something commonly referred to as the 5 by 5 rule: “If something won’t matter in five years, don’t waste more than five minutes worrying about it now.” In my experience, both as an athlete and a mental performance coach, I tend to give a little bit more than five minutes to process negative emotions, but the acceptance part of this advice is so important.

So many people think goal pursuit is linear and that if you put in the work, the performance will follow. While this is true in some regards, our sport is so variable, and pursuing a goal will all your heart may lead to success, but there will also likely be rejection, illness, injury, unfairness, and failure along the way too. As long as you can stay focused on the things you value in your pursuit, you’ll be better equipped to handle the setbacks when they come.

Alexa Lapp and Cambalda. Photo by Jenni Autry.

Can you tell me about a time you felt most burnt out and what factors you believe contributed to those feelings?

I think I was most burnt out when we stepped Ping down from the Advanced level and I was competing with just a few young horses at the Novice level, including Pasco. Young horses have a way of making you feel incompetent. In theory, I had this amazing opportunity to ride for the Gardners and had two of my own going as well, but I got stuck in a mindset where I felt like I wasn’t doing a good enough job producing them and it was pretty tough.

I had also just spent every penny I had on Pasco so I was working any job I could to afford his bills. When you’re working long, hard hours and still barely getting by it’s hard to picture life being any different. During this time, I had to remind myself that things aren’t always going to be perfect. I went to Jennie to talk about how I was feeling and she helped adjust my schedule and gave me more lessons on the horses I felt I was struggling with. She helped me remember why I was getting the opportunities that I was, and help me focus more on the good than the bad. It’s also good to have friends that are in a similar situation. Almost anyone that has a young horse is going to feel stuck or frustrated, so I connected with my friends that could relate.

Sometimes when things are falling apart they might actually be falling into place. Steve Jobs said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” Alexa is right in that it’s hard to see a future or stay motivated when all you have are young unpredictable horses that you put a lot of work into one day and that still try to buck you off the next. Being able to embrace the growing pains and trust the future really can help with burnout.

What was one of the biggest obstacles you had to overcome on your way to one of your proudest achievements (and what were they)?

My proudest achievement was producing Pasco to the CCI3*-L level. Honestly, being able to financially support him to this level was the biggest obstacle. Besides entry fees, there are cross country schooling fees, vet bills, farrier bills, and more. I had to ask for help to make it possible, which I was lucky to get, but it’s always a little bit uncomfortable to ask people for financial help.

Can you tell me a little bit about the emotions you experienced the weekend you moved up to Advanced for the first time?

I remember not believing it was going to happen — like something silly was going to ruin it.

My dressage went really well and then Jennie had a bad fall and I wasn’t sure that I should even run. I was so emotional finishing cross country because I was happy to have completed it but sad that Jennie wasn’t there for it. I went on to finish third, which was an incredible feeling. I was so grateful and everyone was so supportive and had so many kind words. I don’t think I’ll ever forget any details of that weekend.

This was actually my first weekend working for Jennie, and I remember Alexa grappling with the idea of scratching from the show. In the midst of a lot of chaos, she was able to produce an excellent result. Sometimes distractions actually make us narrow our focus and shift into a “get it done” mindset, but it’s all about how you chose to react. If you have a reason to fail, and you give in to it, you will most likely sabotage your own chances, but if you can reappraise the situation and remain focused in spite of distractions, you may actually set yourself up for peak performance.

Alexa Lapp and Cambalda. Photo by Leslie Wylie.

What advice do you have for someone in the sport who is currently facing adversity??

Stick through the tough part — it always gets better. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or talk to someone; everyone has gone through bad times in this sport. I also really think it’s important to have something that you love outside of the horses so that when things aren’t going great it doesn’t feel like your whole world is crashing down

How did you feel when you found out Jennie was going to be able to keep Pasco and what’s next for you?

I mainly felt relief. I’ve been so concerned about making sure he was going to go to a good person I was happy he’d be staying with a person and program I know and respect so much. Obviously selling him was bittersweet but this was a best case scenario! I’m going to get a “normal” job and then I am planning a trip to Europe to spend a few months there this fall. I still hope to help Jennie at the big events and come to visit the horses! I’ve known most of the horses since they were four-year-olds or younger than that so I’ll be keeping up with them and Jennie. In a year or so I’ll reevaluate and probably get another young one to produce if I haven’t already bought one by then.

I know I can’t wait to see how far Jennie and Pasco will go, and couldn’t be happier for all parties involved. Good luck to Alexa on her next adventure, although as she said, I’m sure we’ll still be seeing her around.

Between the Ears with Emily Hamel

It seems like these days we look at each other’s lives through the lens of a highlight reel. We get to see the incredible trips, the best jumps, and the moments that we’re proud enough of to put on social media. What we don’t talk about is how much pressure this adds to athletes on both ends of the news feed.

Riders, whether professional or not, are made to feel like they ‘have to’ post something that makes them look cool and successful. Then, as we consume this content, we are stuck with the disillusioned perception that the sport is easy and that if you’re not succeeding, then maybe you aren’t cut out for it. I would like to take this opportunity to go ‘between the ears’ of some of the riders that make up our Eventing Nation and work to understand some of the real challenges this industry presents.

To get started, I spoke with 5* rider Emily Hamel, who just so happens to be one of my very best friends. Now, I think Emily is great about being vulnerable both on social media and in person, however, after coming off of a year in Europe and successfully completing both Badminton and Burghley, it’s hard not to romanticize her and Barry’s journey to the top. So let’s go ahead and take a journey between the ears…

Photo courtesy of Emily Hamel.

Can you tell me about a time that you lost your confidence in your riding? How did you overcome it?

“The summer/early fall of 2019 was a rough patch for Barry and me. We were struggling to get our second 4*-L qualification after completing our first 4*-L brilliantly at Fair Hill in the fall of 2018. I went into Bromont that summer feeling great, but a few silly rider errors on cross country and the first E on our record.

I was pretty devastated by this mostly because I felt I should have done better. After allowing myself to be sad for a day, I promptly devised a plan and started training hard for Fair Hill in the fall. Again, I was feeling great going into the event, but unfortunately got launched out of the saddle at fence 7 on cross country when we disagreed on the distance to the Trakehner. This crushed my confidence in my riding and I wondered if I would ever get qualified to run a 5*.

Luckily, I had been through enough disappointments before and know there was no use dwelling on it. However, I give myself a day or two max to throw myself a pity party. After the party is done, I come up with a new plan. In this situation, it consisted of me extending my season and aiming for the 4*-L at Jockey Club in Ocala. Leading up to the event, I had several cross country lessons with Phillip to boost my confidence through competence which led to a great outcome and qualifying score.”

I love how Emily says “Luckily, I had been through enough disappointments” here. While there are certaintly events and circumstances that can shake our confidence, it is actually being able to push through difficult times that make us more mentally tough and in turn, more confident.

Emily’s belief in herself and her abilities have been able to help her push through mistakes and difficulties even beyond the struggles she experienced in the 2019 season.

After coming very close to taking a swim at Badminton, Emily went on to finish a beautiful cross country round. In those moments, there is no space for self-doubt, only trust in yourself and your ability to do hard things. In the sport of eventing, it’s so unrealistic to think everything is going to go perfectly all the time, it is however, realistic to expect yourself to get stronger with every obstacle you overcome.

Emily Hamel and Corvett. Photo by Shelby Allen.

Have you ever experienced burnout? Why? What tools did you use to get through it?

“Oh yeah, because working with horses is hard! I’ve worked in the horse industry for myself and other professionals since high school. Throughout the years, I have experienced varying forms of burnout. It happens most often when I’m working hard AND feeling like I’m not moving in the right direction. One can be manageable for a while, but both are a lethal combo.

Whenever I feel like burnout is coming, I know it’s time for something to change. That’s part of the reason I decided to go to England last year. Not only did I want to compete at Badminton and Burghley, but I also wanted time and space to focus on Barry and figure out my next step after our European adventure.”

What was one of the biggest obstacles you had to overcome on your way to one of your proudest achievements?

“I would say injuring my knee and having to have surgery four weeks before competing at Badminton was quite the obstacle. I was on a serious emotional roller coaster for a while there with being on the waitlist for Badminton, then hurting my knee, then getting the news I got off the waitlist, then expediting my surgery/recovery time so I could ride at Badminton.

I couldn’t have done it without the amazing group of people who took care of me and my horses while I healed. Shout out to Tyler for wheeling me out of the barn on a tack trunk! So when I completed Badminton it was a huge win in so many ways.”

I think the biggest takeaway here is perseverance. There are countless stories of individuals who overcome physical, mental, and financial limitations through unstoppable perseverance.

As I was literally carrying Emily around less than a month before she was supposed to head overseas, I saw her worry, I saw her question but I never saw her give up completely. She made a plan, and she found her way. I had joked with Emily a few months before when she rented her house out for the year before heading to Aiken and said “I guess you’re just going to have to make this happen, Badminton, Burghley the whole nine yards” — and she did.

Confidence is just the colloquial term for self-efficacy –- the belief that you can successfully do a particular thing. Maybe it’s wild to think, “I’m getting knee surgery and then getting on a plane to run my first overseas event at the 5* level”, but clearly it worked.

We don’t get to choose which obstacles stand in our way, but we do get to choose how we react to them, and in that choice, our experience can and will change.

Emily Hamel and Corvett at Badminton. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

What advice do you have for someone in the sport currently facing adversity?

“Welcome to the club! No matter how perfect someone’s journey may look, there is no doubt they have had to overcome multiple things to get to that place. I think knowing that you are not alone in the struggle is the most important thing and having a good support system to help you get through it is key. Also, I always like the think that it’s the adversity that makes for a good story. So as much as it may suck in the moment know that it will make the wins that much better in the end.”

The Power of Perception in Addressing Mental Health for Equestrians

Tyler Held shares a moment with FE Lifestyle. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Dr Tyler Held is a professional groom and Sport and Performance Psychology Consultant. You may have seen her over the last few years working for 5* rider Jennie Brannigan or listened to an episode of her podcast, The Whole Equestrian. Tyler started riding at summer camp at the age of 5 and essentially never looked back. She obtained her Undergraduate degrees in Animal Science and Equine Business Management from the University of Findlay in 2014. During this time, she spent her summers doing her first working student job at an eventing barn and quickly became obsessed with the sport. After experiencing some mental blocks in her own riding, she decided to focus on grooming and learning more about Sport Psychology. In 2017 she moved to Chester County, PA to work as a Vet Tech and groom for Dr. Kevin Keane, which opened a lot of doors in the eventing community. Just as she finished her Master’s Degree in Sport and Performance Psychology, she took the reins at Brannigan Eventing as head groom. Now partially retired from grooming, Tyler is focusing on life as a Certified Mental Performance Coach (CMPC).

My good friend (and five-star rider) Emily Hamel and I have talked about mental health for equestrians for the past four years as an element to our podcast, The Whole Equestrian, with the mission of bridging the gap between riding and wellness. We’ve provided actionable advice, and we’ve gotten positive feedback from our listeners who have been able to put the lessons to work in their everyday life. And yet, as someone who knows the reality of working in an eventing barn in this country, I still feel like our dream to promote health and happiness through our love of horses is just that: more a dream than a reality.

In our dream, workers can take sick days, plan and keep doctor’s appointments, sit down to eat a healthy lunch, and see their families more than once a year. The dream is that these individuals have time to pursue a hobby outside of horses, cook healthy meals for themselves, and even cross-train their bodies and minds outside of the barn and the saddle. 

The reality, as someone who has lived it, is a bit different. The reality is that horses require around-the-clock care. Managing them exhausts most of our physical and mental energy for the day, and even if you wanted to eat healthy or work out, the time and resources to do those things are non-existent. 

Don’t get me wrong, when I was grooming I tried to do all the things. I made it a personal mission to ignore the ‘harsh realities’ and worked to pave my own path. I practiced Jiu Jitsu almost daily, I took classes towards my doctorate in sport and performance psychology, I read books, I meal-prepped, I pursued relationships outside of the barn and I even snuck in a few ‘non-horse’ related trips. However, in doing all these things, I suffered from a lot of stress and anxiety. I rarely lived in the present moment because I was always thinking of the ‘next thing’ on my to-do list and I even suffered from some pretty severe stress rashes. On the outside, I was doing all the ‘right’ things I had learned from my study of high performance that were supposed to make me successful, and yet by pushing too hard and doing too much, I actually ended up in a stress overload. 

I’ve had a lot of time over the last year to think about this particular problem, and how mental health can be more attainable within the harsh realities of our industry. Now, I’m not saying that there aren’t things that could and should be done on the side of the employers and the structure of our industry to make things better, but that’s another article for another day. Instead, I want to talk about how our perspective (something we can control) can help us feel a little bit more healthy, no matter what circumstances we find ourselves in at this moment. And I hope to do this using a parable about three bricklayers, who are working to construct a church. 

When asked “what are you doing?”, the first bricklayer says, “I am laying bricks”; the second bricklayer says, “I am building a wall”; and the final bricklayer exclaims, “I am building a house for God.” The physical task that these three bricklayers are doing is identical and yet the more meaning they put behind the task, the more they’ll be driven and inspired throughout the process.

I bring up this example because when I first started grooming, I truly felt that I was like that third bricklayer, building a house for God. Any sacrifice that I made didn’t feel like a sacrifice at all, because it served a greater purpose and helped me belong to the sport of eventing in a way that made me feel empowered and unstoppable. 

The tricky thing about perspective is that almost anything can shift it. It can be an injury (to yourself or your horse), a string of bad weather, a bad performance at a show or in a lesson, or a bad fall. Or, if you’re like me, maybe you just tried to do too many things at once and burnt yourself out and all of a sudden what once felt like building a house for God turned into just laying bricks. 

Now, I’ve never been a bricklayer before, but I can imagine that the task reduced down to the task itself becomes monotonous, back-breaking work. Not unlike mucking out yet another stall, taking another horse out to the turnout field that is farthest away from the barn, or doing another 35-minute trot set on the same track you’ve just taken five other horses on. 

It doesn’t matter how we lose our perspective, but it certainly does suck when it happens. Because the thing is, most people get into horses for the love and there’s nothing more heartbreaking than when something that you love doesn’t bring the same joy to you that it once did. 

So I invite you to spend some time thinking about yourself, and your journey with horses and the bricklayers. Why are you here? Can you put yourself back in the shoes of that excited, nervous feeling you felt when you first stepped into the saddle at pony camp? Do you remember how awestruck you were the first time you watched a horse gallop past you on the cross country at Kentucky? Do you remember the last time you spent time with a horse and really enjoyed them for the pure magic that they bring us? 

Reconnect with your ‘why’, and define the value that you get out of this industry. Strong values drive committed action and they might just bring a little bit more of a spark to the in-and-out day-to-day manual labor that “comes with the job”.  And, if you find yourself in a space where you’ve searched your soul and you still can’t find that spark, keep looking. My life now isn’t anything like what my horse-crazy kid-version of myself would have ever dreamed of, but I still get to have horses be a huge part of it working as a Mental Performance Coach for Equestrian athletes and I’m grateful for every second of it. 

 

The Pre-Performance Advantage

How do riders prepare for the mental challenges of eventing? We aim to find out. Photo by Abby Powell.

When Tiger Woods steps up to the tee, he stands behind the ball holding his club, visualizes where he wants the shot to land, BEFORE taking the shot. Once he is in position, he looks at the ball and the target one more time, and executes the shot as he saw it in his head.

When Michael Jordan shot a free throw, he would take a shoulder width stance, spin the ball in his hands, bounce the ball three times, and then spin the ball once again while fixating the rim before he finally threw the ball.

These elite athletes, like many others, are engaging in a pre-performance routine, or a set of predetermined thoughts and actions that are used before performance challenges. When used effectively, pre-performance routines have been proven to give athletes a competitive advantage.

So what does an effective pre-performance routine look like to an equestrian athlete?

Well, as with all things mental, there is no “one size fits all” answer to this question. Pre-performance routines should help prime us to be physically and mentally ready for the challenge ahead of us. As eventers, I think we can all recognize that the mental activation required of dressage is not the same as that of cross country, but I’m curious as to how athletes change their preparation approach through each phase of competition.

Next week, I will have the opportunity to be amongst some of the most elite riders at one of the most high pressure competitions of the year — the Maryland 5 Star — and I will be interviewing athletes on what they think are the most important elements of their mental preparation that helps them get “in the zone” across the three phases of competition.

Be sure to tune in to updates on Eventing Nation, and let me know what questions you have about mental readiness and performance routines — you can email me your question or post it in the comments.

Psst! Tyler is holding a silent auction of some exciting equestrian items to raise money for cancer research and support. Please be sure to check it out and get your bids in before November 1st here.

Rider Responsibility and Effective Goal-Setting

Tyler Held is a professional groom and Sport and Performance Psychology Consultant. You may have seen her over the last few years working for 5* rider Jennie Brannigan or listened to an episode of her podcast, The Whole Equestrian. Tyler started riding at summer camp at the age of 5 and essentially never looked back. She obtained her Undergraduate degrees in Animal Science and Equine Business Management from the University of Findlay in 2014. During this time, she spent her summers doing her first working student job at an eventing barn and quickly became obsessed with the sport. After experiencing some mental blocks in her own riding, she decided to focus on grooming and learning more about Sport Psychology. In 2017 she moved to Chester County, PA to work as a Vet Tech and groom for Dr. Kevin Keane, which opened a lot of doors in the eventing community. Just as she finished her Master’s Degree in Sport and Performance Psychology, she took the reins at Brannigan Eventing as head groom. Now partially retired from grooming, Tyler is focusing on finishing up her Doctorate and requirements to be a Certified Mental Performance Coach (CMPC).

Jennie Brannigan and FE Lifestyle. Photo by Abby Powell.

The summer after my freshman year of college was the first time that I was able to cross the finish flags of a recognized event, and to say I was hooked was an understatement. I had always been interested in the sport of Eventing, but competing didn’t become a reality until I was able to work through some serious training gaps in the OTTB my parents had bought me when I was 14 years old.

After a solid year of Dressage boot camp, “Fred” and I were able to have an awesome summer, bringing home ribbons at both the Beginner Novice and Novice level. Unfortunately, when I returned to school I received advice that would ultimately ruin my competition success in eventing. I was told that if I wanted to be anyone in this sport, that I would need to buy a nicer horse and I would need to set my sights on making it to Young Riders.

Mind you, I had maybe completed four Novice courses at this point. But my parents knew how much riding meant to me, so they agreed and bought me a horse that had a nice record at Prelim. I had two years to go from Novice to 2* and I laid out my goals accordingly. I knew it would be a stretch, but I’m a hard worker, so I thought that I could do it.

The problem was, I got so focused on the outcomes of the shows, that I stopped actually figuring out HOW to ride my horse.

We did OK at first, but as I moved up to Training, it was clear that there were gaps in my riding that were difficult to overcome when all I wanted to do was check the boxes of completing shows. I ended up falling off my new horse, Andy, at my first attempt at a Training Three-Day and I was absolutely devastated. Andy and I were fine and healthy (we actually ended up even running the one-day Training event over the same weekend) but my mindset and attitude went down in the dumps because my move-up plans were ruined.

For most riders, the pressure to move up the levels is not a foreign concept. The natural progression of riding and improving is the desire to challenge yourself at the next big thing. However, so often when we focus just on the move-up, qualifications and outcomes of events themselves we cause ourselves stress, disappointment and even performance breakdowns.

The environment and culture around the move-up can be toxic at best and dangerous at worst. When we don’t prepare ourselves properly for the skills required of the levels we are doing, accidents can and will happen.

So, how does this tie into Sport Psychology? In my practice, I do a lot of work to help riders set effective goals. Goals help us shape our focus, and focus helps us perform at our peak. The goal to move-up is of course a goal, however, it lacks the specificity and direction of HOW and WHAT needs to be completed to get there. HOW do you level up mentally, physically and technically from a Novice level rider to a Training level rider? WHAT are your strengths and weaknesses? WHAT skills do you need to learn about and master? HOW do you know if you are truly ready to move up a level?

Have big goals? What does your goal planning process look like? Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

Chances are, your goals look something like this: 

  • July 30th- Novice at Jersey 
  • August 13th- Novice at Fair Hill 
  • September 3rd- Novice at Seneca (LAST ONE!!!) 
  • October 5th- MOVE UP TO TRAINING @ Morven!!!! 

Sure, you’ve got things you’re ‘working on’ in your lessons, and you’re probably practicing things that you need to practice, but do you get more specific about what gaps you need to fill to actually move up a level successfully? I’m not saying that you can’t set a goal that is outcome-based — in fact, this is part of the process. Winning a ribbon, getting a qualifying score, and going double clear are all great examples of outcome goals. Even as we keep these things in mind, we can’t stop there.

It is MORE important to focus on what are known as Process Goals. Process Goals focus on the action required of a given task; for example, making sure that you and your horse have the proper level of fitness, making sure that you’ve mastered the collective marks in your dressage test and understanding the technical approach to certain cross country questions that might appear at your level.

I find that a lot of equestrians shy away from specific goal-setting because they believe that they need to remain open to the ever changing needs of their horse. While I don’t deny that horsemanship requires adaptability, it doesn’t mean your goal setting should be thrown to the wayside. Do you set goals for yourself? Be honest: are you more focused on the outcomes of your work or the process?

Whether your goal is to go to the 5* level or make it to Training level, the process of making a goal into reality is the same. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

Even if you never want to leave the start box at an official event, I can’t stress the importance of setting effective goals. The process helps us to look forwards in a productive way but also allows us to be more self-aware and self-reflective.

The best news? This doesn’t even take that much time- so grab a pen and some paper and you’re one step closer to being a goal-oriented and responsible rider!

Here’s a quick example of what more effective goals might look like for moving up to Training level (want to try this out? Click here to download this worksheet as a PDF):

Goal Setting Worksheet

Main Goal: Move up to Training level this fall

Motivation for Goal:

  • Demonstrate the progress I have made in my training
  • Increase trust and relationship I have with my horse
  • To HAVE FUN!

Process Goals (what specific skills are you working on to make your main goal possible):

  • Improve my personal fitness and stamina by working out a minimum of 3 times a week for 30 minutes
  • Improve rhythm and relaxation in dressage through working with a new dressage trainer 2x a week
  • Increase adjustability of canter and improve understanding of appropriate balance to have for different jumping questions- take videos and review what feels and looks the best
  • Increase my horse’s fitness routine- work with my trainer to come up with an appropriate balance of fitness/jumping/dressage and hack/recovery days
  • Work on confidence/mindset- begin a confidence journal based on the technical skills I am working to master and track progress.

You can even take this one step further and identify different obstacles and behaviors that might facilitate or inhibit your performance, with a readiness plan like this one:

Readiness Plan:

Preparation: Technical, strategic, physical & psychological readiness for training and competition
Goal: Build confidence through competence and practice. Make sure that I am getting ample time to practice Dressage, Show Jumping and Cross Country and am feeling good about all of the skills required of the level.
Obstacle: Finding the time to balance practice of the three phases with my horses fitness work and other life distractions
Behavior: Plan my weeks ahead of time, being realistic about time commitments that I can make. Start a confidence journal where I track the progress of my training

Resilience and coping with adversity: Positive coping with performance challenges, setbacks, and errors
Goal: Find a process to help calm my mind/emotions during show jumping when I’m struggling to see a distance
Obstacle: My tendency to get frustrated and emotional as things go wrong
Behavior: Practice thought stopping and keep a self-talk log

Focus: Concentration on the most important parts of the task at hand and being able to shift attention when needed and letting go of distractions
Goal: Quiet my mind to distractions in the show ring
Obstacle: Tendency to be an overthinker
Behavior: Add in a mindfulness routine out of the saddle to strengthen the mental muscle of focus

With a robust plan like this one, you can make the move up without the harsh discovery of those gaps in your preparation.